Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Arizona doubles down on school to prison pipeline, expands cops in schools

A big story broke for Arizona students the other day and it wasn't the tear-jerker faux apology of state school Superintendent and compulsive racist internet troll John Huppenthal.

While the media has been safely distracted with the important questions raised by the Huppenthal mess, such as just what would a menu at a Mexican restaurant look like if it couldn't use Spanish (i.e., "Can I interest anyone in a corn flour flatbread wrap stuffed with mashed pinto beans and cheese?"), meanwhile the legislature passed a massive expansion of Arizona's school resource officer program.

This program, partially funded by Proposition 301 which passed in 2000, was expanded last week, growing it to include 137 schools and 118 officers with an added price tag of $12 million. Aside from more officers, the deal also includes the addition of three juvenile probation officers. And here's where we get to the crux of the issue.

Source: Arizona Daily Star

Over the last several years, students, activists and parents have expressed increasing concern about what's called the "school to prison pipeline."  As the adult prison population has expanded in this country, so has the number of children behind bars. And even with a relatively recent rise in the use of diversion programs in Arizona, the consequences for students can be severe, as the presence of SROs in schools leads to the increasing criminalization of student behavior, particularly students of color. Police become involved in behavior problems that previously had been treated as administrative discipline issues.

According to a Justice Policy Institute report on SROs in schools:
"In 2001, the Pinellas County (Florida) School District Police made 146 arrests, of which 54 percent were of black students. Comparatively, 19 percent of the District’s enrollment is black.

In South Carolina, black students are more likely to be referred to law enforcement than their white peers. Black students make up 42 percent of student enrollment, but 75 percent of disorderly conduct charges, of which 90 percent are referred to law enforcement.

In the 2001–2002 school year, Latino students were 22 percent of student enrollment, but 34 percent of referrals to law enforcement agencies in Colorado."
Disparities of this order ought to concern anyone and should be part of the discussion around further expanding the role for police in schools.

Source: Justice Policy Institute (.pdf)

Further, racial disparities plainly evident in policing outside school also prevail behind school walls. The ACLU Arizona has also documented the disproportionate criminalization of students of color, noting that both Latino and black youth are over-represented throughout the process, from referral and arrest to incarceration. These disparities result, in no small part, from the proliferation of "zero tolerance policies" in schools, which combine with the presence of SROs to funnel students into the criminal justice system.

These policies, which emerged from the white suburban paranoia in the 80's and 90's over drugs and violence in inner city schools, and solidified as national policy with the passing of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 (perhaps offering a lesson in the unintended consequences of gun control legislation), have had greater effect in schools attended by nonwhite students.

The Justice Policy Institute has shown a direct correlation between zero tolerance policies and the proportion of students of color in a school, as well as the way that youth of color are targeted at far greater rates than white kids for all manner of disciplinary processes. In Arizona, for instance, suspensions for Native American youth ranks second in the nation and well above the national average. Likewise, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, Indigenous Peoples number 5% of the Arizona population and yet total 10% of its prison population. More SROs will only further exacerbate that disturbing trend.

Source: New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (.pdf)

And SROs in schools pose a particular threat to immigrant youth in the land of SB1070. In 2013, the ACLU Arizona filed a complaint (.pdf) with the then Superintendent of Sunnyside Unified School District, Dr. Manuel L. Isquierdo over an incident in which a student was turned over by a school resource officer to Border Patrol over his immigration status.  Again, data from the Justice Policy Center shows that, "Even when controlling for school poverty, schools with an SRO had nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without an SRO." SROs also pose a safety risk to students. In Tempe in February, a SRO accidentally tased a eight grader when teaching a class on bullying.

Flooding Arizona schools with cops is obviously seen as uncontroversial among media types, as not one single article I could find had even a solitary voice of dissent on the matter. More cops in schools, in the age of school shooting paranoia, is viewed as a universal good, just like zero tolerance policies were during a previous wave of school violence fears. Meanwhile, the admittedly offensive and reactionary internet comments by Superintendent Huppenthal have created a national media firestorm.

While Huppenthal's racism is a serious issue, and certainly his attacks on ethnic studies were clearly racist, banning books in school doesn't prevent students from reading them. Ideally, students do most of their reading outside of class. Libraries exist, the internet exists. Huppenthal running the schools is certainly a problem, but the presence of police in those schools is a direct every day force for institutionalized racism with real, lifelong consequences for students. The silence that has greeted this expansion of the police state is telling.

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