PBS Host Tavis Smiley Has Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

Smiley talks to TakePart about ‘Education Under Arrest’ and condemns post-Columbine disciplinary rules as a literal school-to-prison pipeline.

Tavis SMiley PBS Education Under Arrest
PBS host Tavis Smiley speaks with two New Orleans honor roll students who were expelled under zero tolerance policies.
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

When most Americans think of the phrase “zero tolerance” in relation to their children’s schools, they think back to the Columbine massacre, and the subsequent efforts to prevent further gun violence in the classroom. Zero tolerance, in the public conscious, largely refers to punishing kids who threaten their fellow classmates or teachers with weapons or terroristic threats.  

Indeed, many zero tolerance policies in schools were put into place in the aftermath of Columbine. As PBS host Tavis Smiley discovered, however, traveling across the country for his latest special, Education Under Arrest, set to premier on PBS on Tuesday, March 26, zero tolerance policies are rarely about guns.

Instead, these policies are criminalizing the nation’s youth for petty offenses that have no place in the criminal justice system.

“We’re talking about the kind of things that, when I was in school, used to get you sent to the principal’s office,” Smiley tells TakePart. “We’re talking about foul language. We’re talking about chewing gum in class. We’re talking fighting. But instead of dealing with the principal, these days, kids are winding up in front of a judge.”

Thanks to zero tolerance policies, one out of every three teens arrested in America is arrested in their own school. Perhaps even worse, otherwise good students are being expelled for trivial reasons.

“Zero tolerance is an abject failure,” says Smiley. “It is no exaggeration to say it created a school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Bad things do happen to good people. I understand that. But I couldn’t wrap my head around why the adults in this situation couldn’t have figured out a better way to handle it.”

Smiley’s travels across the country took him to cities like Los Angeles, where, for years, pure and simple truancy has been landing students with hefty fines, jail time or expulsion.

“The punishment for cutting school is to be expelled from school,” says Smiley. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

In New Orleans, Smiley says he was brought to tears by the story of two honor roll sisters, Kenyatta and Kennisha, who were expelled from their charter school for fighting—after one was jumped and the other attempted to come to her rescue.

“Both end up penalized because there is no gray area for adults to make decisions about these issues.  Zero tolerance is zero tolerance, regardless of the circumstances. They were both almost perfect 4.0 students. To see these two girls, as bright and full of life as can be, treated in a punitive and pejorative way, I had to stop camera because I started crying. We had to take a break. I couldn’t keep it together.

“Bad things do happen to good people. I understand that. But I couldn’t wrap my head around why the adults in this situation couldn’t have figured out a better way to handle it.”

Smiley says that his experience traveling the country and speaking with teenagers caught up in the net of zero tolerance taught him that the expectation of behavioral perfection is an impossible standard—particularly for low-income students, students of color and students from troubled homes.

“We don’t ask adults to live lives of zero tolerance. They can’t. We all have bad days—particularly kids who are hungry, or come from abusive homes, or who just saw their cousin get shot. The whole notion of zero tolerance means not allowing kids to be kids. It means you can’t make a mistake. That is too big a burden for anyone to handle, let alone our children.”

And our children appear to be snapping. Eighty-five percent of the students at the Innovative Concept Academy in St. Louis, run by Judge Jimmie Edwards, are there because they have been expelled from their public school for fighting. If Judge Edwards had not used his legal leverage to extract these kids from the criminal justice system, nearly all of his students would be facing jail.

“I think what shocked me most was that, more than drugs and alcohol abuse, these kids have an anger problem,” says Smiley. “I encountered so many kids who are so angry. I had no idea the anger among this generation was so palpable. That anger is because they lack the love and support they need. That’s why zero tolerance is so antithetical to the reality of their situation.”

Do you think zero tolerance is a helpful or a hurtful policy? Share your thoughts in COMMENTS.

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