‘Zero tolerance’ imprisons too many students

Students sit on a peer justice panel last month at San Juan High School’s “restorative justice” program.
Students sit on a peer justice panel last month at San Juan High School’s “restorative justice” program.

We were kept in a gated space away from the rest of the population; a security guard walked us to the bathroom; and the two supervisors constantly told us that we were going nowhere in life.

This wasn’t a prison. It was an alternative education program for expelled students in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, one of the lowest performing in the state. The two supervisors weren’t prison guards, but were supposed to be our teachers.

I managed to escape. Determined to make something of my life, I returned to my public high school, started a college admissions support group and enrolled in college. I am on track to graduate cum laude next year, with the hope of attending law school.

As the country watched with horror the recent incident at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina in which a white officer violently arrested a black student, I couldn’t help but reflect on my experiences growing up, and the problems caused by overly harsh discipline policies against students throughout the country.

Every day, we are alienating kids and pushing them away from education. Zero tolerance policies that result in lengthy suspensions and expulsions are teaching our kids that following a strict dress code is more important than receiving a quality education, and that we would rather them not come to school with their problems than try to help them.

We are sending kids into a system that isn’t equipped to serve them, in which their pain grows and has heightened consequences. On top of that, we bring in probation and police officers who aren’t trained properly to deal with student issues and often treat students brutally. It’s a recipe for disaster.

A safe and productive environment is paramount to learning, but kids should not be suspended for “willful defiance” – nonviolent behavior without any weapons involved. How can we ensure a quality education for our most underserved youth if they’re not in school?

Students of color from low-income backgrounds are disproportionately affected by zero tolerance policies and are the ones who suffer the most from the achievement gap with their more privileged white and Asian peers. Policies that unfairly target struggling students can eventually put them in the prison system, becoming a burden to taxpayers.

Restorative justice – a disciplinary approach that focuses on student support rather than punishment – is one solution that is working. We need more of these programs.

We must all get involved and advocate for students who need this type of support. One of the most meaningful ways for citizens to make a difference is to attend a school board meeting and support restorative justice programs in our schools.

We must demand that legislators and school board members work together to create policies for the entire state that will help, rather than hurt, our kids. All students – especially those like me – deserve the support they need to stay in school, go to college, and create better lives for themselves.

Dilan Pedraza is a senior at Chico State University and a member of Students For Education Reform.