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In our final post of the Expanded Sanctuary series, we look at how criminalization impacts young people in the school system. Read parts one and two.

Desk and chair with red apple on the desk.

Sanctuary Schools?

“We can’t say, ‘hey don’t let ICE on your campus’ and not call out over-policing of people of color on […] campuses. We can’t celebrate local police who might consider not working with ICE but who over-police and won’t make those same proclamations for other communities of color.”

Marisa Franco, director of Mijente quoted in The Nation

As the impact of Trump’s immigration policy and xenophobic rhetoric are felt across the country, including in our schools, a growing number of communities are pressing their local school districts to adopt sanctuary and “safe zone” policies to protect undocumented students. At a minimum, this means refusing to share data about a student’s immigration status with federal authorities, preventing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from entering school facilities, and other tried-and-true strategies.

Policies that criminalize people disproportionately impact youth of color, LGBTQI students, Muslim students, and youth with disabilities or cognitive differences. So long as school districts rely on excessively harsh discipline and the presence of law enforcement on campus, they will continue to place their immigrant students at risk.

While traditional sanctuary policies are a crucial first step, they do not address the larger problem of criminalization. Even in districts where schools have pledged to provide a level of sanctuary by not sharing student information with immigration authorities, a juvenile delinquency record can have serious consequences, including in any later contact with ICE, and schools that rely on the criminal justice system for discipline leave their undocumented students vulnerable.

This is why the concept of sanctuary must expand. In schools, this means implementing disciplinary practices that are grounded in restorative justice and respect young people’s ability to develop and learn from mistakes, rather than practices of exclusion and punishment that limit their futures.

The school-to-prison pipeline

School policies in the United States reflect larger social and political trends resulting in mass incarceration and over-policing. Students today, particularly students of color, often face a disciplinary system that would have been unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago. The presence of uniformed police has become routine on many campuses, and officers increasingly use criminal penalties to enforce school discipline.

These practices display a pattern of structural racism. Nationwide, more than half of students who are arrested at school or referred to law enforcement are people of color. Many arrests are for things that child development experts would regard as normal kid behavior. In one district in Louisiana, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 562 school arrests in one year, many of them for such harmless and age-appropriate behavior as “yelling in the hallways.” One eighth-grader was allegedly arrested and detained for six days for throwing skittles on the school bus. 80% of those arrested were Black, even though Black students make up only 42% of the student body.

Referrals to law enforcement are one manifestation of the turn toward harsh discipline and “zero tolerance” in our schools; increasing use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are another. These practices cut short children’s education, erode their self-esteem, and place them into unstructured and unsafe environments that can ultimately lead to arrest or removal proceedings, what advocates call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Intersections with other forms of discrimination

Discrimination based on disability, race, and youth intersect to magnify a child’s vulnerability. In many cases, children are criminalized simply for displaying symptoms of their disabilities. The Center for Public Integrity reports a case in which an 11-year Black student with autism was handcuffed and criminally charged after kicking a trash can at school. Police on campus are rarely trained to know how to work with children with cognitive differences and frequently resort to violent forms of physical restraint and seclusion that can have devastating consequences for a child.

Gender nonconforming and LGBTQI students also disproportionately bear the brunt of “zero tolerance” policies. The Gay Straight Alliance Network (GSAN) notes that, while LGBTQI youth make up about 6% of the population, they represent 15% of people in juvenile detention. Many queer youth report being penalized for not conforming to gender roles in school dress codes (such as boys bringing nail polish to school or wearing hair extensions) or blamed for their own bullying.

By a cruel irony, many of the anti-bullying provisions that schools have adopted in recent years to protect LGBTQI students from harassment actually increased their criminalization. The Advancement Project, Alliance for Economic Justice, and GSAN note in a joint report that in some cases, LGBTQI students have been expelled or suspended on anti-fighting or anti-bullying grounds even though they were defending themselves from violence. Such zero-tolerance policies often fail to recognize that students who are labeled as “bullies” may have been victims of violence themselves. Many “aggressive” students engage in negative survival strategies because the long-term failure of responsible adults to protect them from harm has left them with few options.

Solutions and a path forward

Zero tolerance and “anti-bullying” policies can deprive young people of a meaningful chance to learn from their mistakes. These systems do violence to their humanity and disregard their capacity to grow and learn. Providing real sanctuary in a school setting requires more than barring ICE officers at the door. It means reducing or eliminating a school’s reliance on all forms of law enforcement to maintain student discipline and replacing them with restorative practices that allow students to recognize harms they may have caused and to learn to do better. It means creating schools that perceive the worth and dignity of all students and the inestimable contribution each can make to the school environment.

Helpful practices to counter criminalization at school can be found in The Advancement Project’s Model School Discipline Policy and a joint report by The Advancement Project, GSAN, and the Equality Federation Institute called Power in Partnerships: Building Connections at the Intersections of Racial Justice and LGBTQ Movements to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Some guiding principles include:

  • Deferring wherever possible to restorative practices, rather than punishment, to address student misbehavior. These could include peer mediation, behavior coaching, anger management, or classroom peace circles, among others.
  • Ensuring that children who face serious disciplinary consequences have full due process and the resources they need to keep up with the curriculum.
  • Curbing the use of subjective disciplinary categories that lend themselves to unfair enforcement, such as “disorderly or disrespectful behavior.”
  • Reallocate funding dedicated to school police and surveillance to support staff, such as guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, and restorative justice facilitators.