Last Saturday we marked the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark civil rights case that ruled state-sanctioned public school segregation is unconstitutional. In a friend-of-the-court brief in that case, the ACLU and partnering organizations argued that “segregation and equality cannot co-exist. That which is unequal in fact cannot be equal in law.”
Now, 60 years after that hallmark decision, is racial segregation in our schools over? In an opinion piece on MSNBC.com, Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, argues that while explicit segregation remains illegal under federal law, harsh disciplinary policies and criminalization of our classrooms have led to de facto segregation or "Segregation 2.0" – whereby children, and disproportionately children of color, are being funneled from our public schools into our prisons. Dennis writes, “The Supreme Court in Brown may have put an end to de jure segregation, but the school-to-prison pipeline is once again teaching children of color that they are indeed separate and certainly not equal.”
Draconian disciplinary policies espousing “zero tolerance” for misbehavior and the proliferation of police officers (SROs) in schools have closed the gap between many of our schools and our criminal justice system. Small infractions, once worthy of a trip to the principal’s office or maybe a detention, now result in children being suspended, expelled and even arrested.
Take for the example the case of 15-year-old Kyle Thompson. Kyle got into a playful game of tug-of-war with his teacher over a note. As soon as Kyle realized the teacher was serious, he immediately handed over the note. However, this seemingly innocent miscommunication resulted in Kyle being placed in handcuffs, put under house arrest and eventually expelled from all Michigan public schools for a year.
We know that punishing children by removing them from school and placing them into our criminal justice system not only has severe and often irreparable consequences for the child, but also for our communities. Children removed from school have decreased likelihood of going on to graduate high school or pursuing higher education. Formerly incarcerated youth face challenges when participating in the labor force and are statistically more likely to end up back in the juvenile justice system or in the adult criminal justice system.
While zero tolerance policies in our schools impact all kids, data has shown that they disproportionately affect students of color. Black children are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students, according to data recently released by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Black children account for one-sixth of students in public schools but make up almost one-third of school-related arrests. The result: a juvenile justice system (much like our adult criminal justice system) disproportionately filled with people of color.
Here in Maine, we have one of the smallest juvenile justice systems in the country. However, while the number of involved youth has consistently fallen, the representation of minority youth has increased. While the total number of youth incarcerated in Maine decreased by 16 percent between 2006 and 2011, the number of minority youth increased by 77 percent.
While we celebrate the immense gains we have made since Brown v. Board of Education, we must also be reminded of the immense amount of work yet to be done. Today’s racial segregation may not be explicit; however, one look into our criminal justice system and there is little argument it still exists today.