Some children truly are left behind

Let’s talk about a kid named Kyle Thompson. Kyle is 14 years old, a freshman in high school and a star member of the football team. He’s got a lot of friends, and is liked by a majority of the staff members – especially with his straight-A record. Like most freshmen, Kyle can get a bit unruly at times, but most will still attest that he’s a great kid, with a bright future.

Now, let me take you to Farmington Hills, Mich. A teacher has walked into the administrator’s office, reporting a school’s worst nightmare – she had been assaulted by a student in her class when she caught him writing a hit-list. The school wastes no time calling resource officers, who arrest the student swiftly and without any resistance. Those in charge believe they’ve just avoided a major tragedy.

But what do these two stories have in common? The answer is Kyle Thompson. During class, he had written a motivational list for himself – a list of players he wanted to tackle during football practice that day. His teacher assumed it was a hit-list, and attempted to take the paper from Kyle, who thought she was joking about her concerns. And the reported assault? The teacher claimed Kyle had shoved her to the ground during the confrontation, a testimony that all witnesses have refuted. Nevertheless, her report alone required the school to expel Kyle and place him into police custody. A young, respected athlete found his future hanging on a limb – all due to zero-tolerance policies found in Michigan, and states across the nation.

Zero-tolerance policies are laws created with the intention of protecting schools from student-related violence. Such policies require that any and all offences be treated with the same punishment – expulsion. Harsh, immediate penalties were to set an example that all students would be held to the highest standards of behavior, and anyone who disobeyed would receive swift, unequivocal and fair punishment. Except – that’s not how things worked out.

Since 1974, there has been a 103 percent increase in the number of suspensions, expulsions and in-school arrests nationwide. Of students punished, a disturbing majority are African-American. Despite making up only 16 percent of public school students, they account for 33 percent of all disciplined – that’s in a system with a student count of 50.2 million. A study out of Indiana University showed that when compared to white students, who are referred for provable offenses such as drug use, black students are often referred for subjective crimes, like backtalk.

Have you ever visited a high school and noticed the unusually prominent presence of police officers? Resource officers, known as SROs, are deployed to schools with the intention of protecting students from internal violence. However, officers being allowed to intervene skips a crucial step in the disciplinary process. Once the officers take control of a situation, students are automatically shoved into the arms of the law. There is no warning or review by the school itself, but instead, an immediate assumption of criminal activity. According to a 2009 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice, students of schools that utilize SROs are already five times more likely to be arrested.

Throughout the decade, the issue of police brutality against African-American citizens had come to the forefront of social discussion. Unfortunately, this violence doesn’t stay behind at the school gate. In 2015, a South Carolina girl was taken by the neck and tossed from her desk by an SRO twice her size, before being placed in handcuffs. Her crime? Refusing to turn over a cell phone.

Last year in Baltimore, video emerged of an officer beating and choking a young student. His partner can be seen in the background, silently observing the abuse. Violent confrontations with the police early on can affect these students for the rest of their lives – a 2013 study by Stephanie Wiley, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis – showed that children who have run-ins with police are at much higher risk for offending as adults, regardless of their initial innocence.

Much of the racial bias found in both school and police disciplinary practices can be attributed to an unconscious phenomenon known as implicit bias, defined by the Kirwan Institute as “(acquired) attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner.” While there is no excuse for racist behavior, conscious or otherwise, realizing the impact of implicit bias can help shed light on the more subtle forms of institutionalized racism. When under the authority of administrators who have an implicit bias, dangerous consequences can quickly emerge for African-American students. Officials who have a bias against those students may find themselves assuming they’re already “bad kids,” and give them harsher punishments than normal. A 2010 study by Villanova University found that there was a positive correlation between a school’s number of African-American students and the strictness their discipline policy.

Some will suggest that there is no disproportionate discipline of black students to white students. Thirty-three percent might not be that high, and it is proven that white students are disciplined at higher rates for serious offences, such as in-school drug use. However, it is important to remember that African-American students only make up 16 percent of the public school population – with a number this low accounting for a third of all in-school arrests, the amount of racial disparity among students arrested still remains at a staggering high.

There is no question that the safety of students should be a top priority to every school. However, if these schools wish to see their African-American students succeed, numerous changes have to be made – states with zero-tolerance laws must work within their respective legislatures to repeal those policies, each school district needs to reconsider the presence of SROs on campus, and every employee, no matter their position, should be put through racial sensitivity training to more readily recognize their own bias. Until then, our schools will continue to put the futures of their most vulnerable students at risk – for making even the simplest mistake of writing names on a paper.

Meagan McLean is a senior at Milford High School. This article is a revised version of her speech that took first place at the school’s 2017 Kaley Speech Contest.