Funneling Children With Disabilities Into the Justice System Through Zero Tolerance Policies

The hot trend in US schools is zero tolerance policies, brought on by a series of incidents in the 1990s which reminded people that schools weren’t necessarily safe places to be. Columbine was probably the critical turning point, the moment at which people understood that violence could strike anywhere, at any time, and could involve anyone. But there were others, and schools slowly began to shift the way they handled discipline on campus, turning to stricter and stricter policies intended, ostensibly, to reduce the risks for students and staff alike.

Catch them early, the rationale seemed to go, and they wouldn’t be able to commit acts of violence and disruption. Mandatory detention, suspension, and other harsh penalties for even relatively minor offenses. The decision to post police officers on school campuses, changing discipline from an internal matter handled within a school to an external one involving the justice system; instead of being sent to the principal’s office, students were being sent to court, and once they got there, they were clogging up the courts with relatively simple cases that definitely didn’t merit judicial intervention.

And, of course, along with such policies came radical inequalities. Students of colour are much more likely to be trapped in the zero tolerance web, particularly Black students, who have an extremely high rate of interventions under such policies which contributes to lower school completion rates. Not, as some conservatives want to argue, because Black students are inherent troublemakers who can’t be trusted, but because they are subject to profiling in school environments and are more likely to be punished than white students for the same infractions. The same racism at work in the adult justice system can also be seen in schools.

But it is students with disabilities who take a particularly hard hit from zero tolerance policies, and it’s an issue with wide-reaching implications. For students of colour who are also disabled, there’s a double-whammy of discrimination; Black disabled students are the most likely to be suspended, and experience suspension rates two or more times higher than other students in some districts. And that’s just the students who are actively identified as disabled, not those who haven’t been diagnosed or who haven’t disclosed their disabilities.

Students with disabilities have fought hard to be on school campuses at all. Historically they were isolated in classrooms with mixed disabilities and education levels with a teacher who wasn’t provided with very much training, and they were essentially babysat through the school day. That began to change with mainstreaming and more specific disability evaluations to get students with disabilities into the right classrooms and make sure they got the educations they needed and deserved. Instead of assuming disabled students were incapable of learning, districts started acknowledging them as human beings and working on plans to integrate them more completely into the school environment.

Unfortunately, they’re still targeted by zero tolerance policies, for a variety of reasons. In the cases of students who are still isolated from the rest of the school population, alleged infractions can occur when those students mix with the rest of the school; ranging from the autistic student suspended for causing a ‘disruption’ simply for existing in a school hallway to students caught in fights and bullying. Thanks to zero tolerance, it’s not uncommon for everyone involved in a fight to be suspended, for example, even if it was clearly a case of one student beating on another, as can be the situation with disabled students targeted for abuse because they look, move, or talk differently than other students.

Thus, those students experience discrimination when they try to interact with the student body, and again when they are punished because the school failed to provide them with support and keep them safe. Disabled students are also more likely to experience problems in the classroom due to disability-related issues; frustration for a dysgraphic student, for example, or the need to stim in a student with autism. Instead of working with those students on what’s going on and finding a way to resolve it that allows the student to learn while promoting a calm classroom environment, the student is sent to detention, suspended, or sent to court for being alive and disabled in a school.

And this is where disabled students start to get funneled into the justice system. As students rack up infractions, they’re more likely to interact with police. Even if a school doesn’t have police on campus, it may call them to deal with disturbances. Suddenly, an issue that might have been prevented by working with a student in the first place turns into a full-blown situation with police officers, handcuffs, and chaos. The student may be panicked, confused, or upset, which can lead to behavioural outbursts. Those will all get added to the student’s record, rather than being noted as a possible consequence of being traumatised.

As disabled students end up in court, they’re more likely to get frustrated with the educational system, which can increase the risk of dropping out. That’s especially true when students are suspended or ordered to do jail time, taking them out of the school environment and putting them in a totally different and potentially dangerous world. As completion rates drop for students with disabilities, schools might point to disabilities as the problem, but really it’s the school policy, and the decision to force disabled students into early and sometimes violent encounters with the justice system rather than providing them with a safe and effective learning environment.

How many disabled students need to land in the justice system before people can enact a meaningful policy change? How many people need to suffer at the hands of districts with outdated approaches to disability before the education system is forced to radically rethink the way it does disability?