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Tavis Smiley turns his critical eye toward the “school-to-prison pipeline”
Television and radio personality Tavis Smiley will premiere his sixth episode of Tavis Smiley Reports (TSR) Mar. 26 from 8 to 9 pm ET/PT on PBS with a focus on what he’s calling “Education Under Arrest,” which examines the impact of zero tolerance policies in education and the resulting fallout – the “school to prison pipeline.”
TST began as a series of primetime specials in 2010 and Smiley has used the program to cover a range of topics from a “One on One With Hillary Clinton,” to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr; a look at New Orleans 5 years after Hurricane Katrina; music programs for schools and an inside look at the high school dropout rate specifically among Black males.
Smiley says his decision to focus on “the connection between the juvenile justice system and the dropout rate among American teens” was a logical outgrowth of his concern about poverty.
“I’ve been talking about the issue of poverty for quite some time and this is another one of those poverty tentacles, he said. “I wrote about it in the book I did with Dr. Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, but I’ve talked about it in a number of different forums over the years and I’ve done other specials about education but … ‘Education Under Arrest,’ this particular special focuses uniquely on the school to prison pipeline and how it is that we are criminalizing our children. So, my interest in it has always been there.”
According to Smiley, one out of three teens arrested in this country are arrested at school.
“The stuff that I used to get sent to the principal’s office for – foul language, getting into a fight, disruptive behavior, missing school, chewing gum in class, getting caught too many times chewing gum – kids are now being suspended for; they’re being expelled for, and they end up in front of a judge and that get’s them a criminal record. And they end up on lockdown. We’re criminalizing our kids and its’ all because of this notion of ‘zero tolerance.’ This idea of ‘zero tolerance’ does not work,” said Smiley.
Describing zero tolerance policies as “a complete, total, utter, abject failure,” Smiley also noted that many youth feel that they are being intentionally pushed out of school. Students expressed what they perceived as an apparent lack of concern from teachers and administrators to their wellbeing and this is what fuels this feeling of not caring, not being present. “So it’s a vicious circle but it leads ultimately to these kids not doing what they ought to be doing, not focusing on what they should be focusing on, not going to school not graduating and they end up casualties of the school to prison pipeline,” said Smiley.
Here in Los Angeles, that pipeline appears to be a rather lucrative one. “The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) spends $52 million a year to arm the largest school police department in the country and we have the largest juvenile court in the county; it's not that hard to connect the dots,” said Manuel Criollo.
Criollo is an organizer with the Community Rights Campaign (CRC) which successfully challenged the LAUSD over what it called the outrageous practice of issuing truancy tickets to students – many of whom were sometimes actually on their campuses – for being late to school, and charging exorbitant fines and fees. Criollo stated that, “On a weekly basis our black and brown youth in Los Angeles Unified are being impacted by the punishment culture in our schools - suspensions, tickets, court fines, and rap sheets are pushing-out students to the streets and some into juvenile camps and toward prison.”
According to the Los Angeles School Board and the Los Angeles Police Department, in 2010, Hispanic/Latino students accounted for 62% of all truancy tickets and African American students accounted for close to 20% of all students ticketed. The base fine for tickets was $50 but mandated fees raised the amount $190 and in some instances, students were being hit with fines totaling $900. In February of 2012, the CRC was able to convince the Los Angeles City Council to end the practice of punitive ticketing of youth for tardiness and truancy.
Though not dismissing Los Angeles’ situation Smiley, who traveled to Washington State, Louisiana, Missouri as well as within California to observe and interview subjects for the special, says that the “pipeline” is not just a black and brown problem. “Kids of all races all colors and all creeds all across this country from California to the Carolinas, this criminalization of our children is the order of the day,” he said. “This is an American catastrophe, not some sort of “color coded” crisis with our kids.” Tanisha Denard, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles, says that the school-to-prison pipeline does more to acclimate youth to prison than to college. “Our schools have more police and probation officers than guidance counselors; we get searched by metal detectors and drug sniffing dogs; our lockers and back packs are emptied out on the regular; campuses have police holding rooms.”Fortunately, the bleak portrait that Denard paints does not hold everywhere. According to Smiley, “The principals, the judges, the counselors, the advisors, the administrators, even some politicians who get this and who do care, and who are implementing programs and policies that work,” gave him hope.“In Washington state we talk about these things called “truancy boards.” These truancy boards are really working … we talk about what [it is] and why it’s working so well there and whether or not we can scale these up across the country,” he said. “The second thing that gave me hope was seeing alternative schools. Just like one size does not fit all, some people want to go to a small private college, some want to go to a big public school – that’s why choice is so important in our society. So these alternative programs, alternative schools do work better for some of these young people than the traditional public school,” said Smiley.Lastly, Smiley said that there were judges whose work should be known as “Exhibit A” in an effort to halt the “pipeline’s flow” of youth into the criminal justice system. He quotes Judge Jimmie Edwards, who is also the principal of Innovative Concept Academy in St. Louis, who says that, “Locking up an 11-year-old in jail for any length of time doesn’t make sense for him, for his family and certainly not for his community.” Smiley stated, “I’ve seen a lot of evidence out there that suggests we can do better on this and we try to highlight that in this special.” “Education Under Arrest” airs on PBS Tuesday, March 26 from 8 to 9 pm ET/PT, and is part of “American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.” For more information,