03/26/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated May 26, 2013

Smiley's Poverty Tour Extends to the 'School-to-Prison Pipeline'

Were it not for award-winning broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West it's quite possible the issue of poverty would have largely gone ignored during the 2012 presidential campaign.

It's not that presidential candidates openly discussed those on the underside of life last year, but Smiley and West, through their "Poverty Tour," gave it a name and face that had been lacking for several decades.

As an extension of the "Poverty Tour" Smiley will host a primetime special on PBS that looks at the connection between the juvenile justice system and the dropout rate among American teens, as well as the efforts by educators, law enforcement professionals, judges, youth advocates and at-risk teens themselves to end what has become known as "the school-to-prison pipeline."

According to Smiley, "One of the most significant problems that our country faces that does not get the attention it deserves is the reality of the school-to-prison pipeline."

Or to put it another way, Smiley blunted states, "We are criminalizing our children in ways we never have."

Smiley's report unveils a juvenile justice system that is pervasive nationwide that has been hamstrung by an ineffectual zero tolerance policy.

"We have gone into overdrive on zero tolerance, which has turned out to be punishment on steroids," Smiley said.

Stuff that once earned students a detention or a one-day suspension -- such as foul language, fighting, or truancy -- is now part of the criteria that saddles them with a police record. Smiley's findings reveal a student expelled for excessive gum chewing.

"You end up kicked out of school for chewing gum, you're hanging out, and that turns into truancy, the next thing you know, you're in front of a judge," he said.

It is hard to fathom but the notion of zero tolerance is systematically trickling downward to younger and younger students.

One case in Florida, the sheriffs were called to address the unruly behavior of a 7-year-old girl that resulted in her being handcuffed and arrested. In my interview with Smiley, he states schools have become the number one location for student arrest.

By visiting a cross section of America, Smiley demonstrates the draconian zero tolerance policy is not reserved for specific groups. Though African American and Latino students are disproportionately impacted, the policy is inclusive in its scope with no bearing to color.

"I saw so many white kids on lockdown. It's not just a black thing or a brown thing; this is an American catastrophe," Smiley said.

Silently, without much fanfare we are giving up on far too many of our children. What does connect these students with varying ethnicities to this comprehensive policy is poverty.

"Poverty has so many tentacles. There is a direct link between poverty and the criminalization of our children," Smiley stated.

The zero tolerance policy is not exclusively focused on low-income communities, but there is little doubt that the overwhelming majority of its application falls on those who come from impoverished backgrounds.

The link that Smiley draws between education, or lack thereof, and poverty is undeniable. The underlying question that Smiley's work raises: How can school reform be addressed in any meaningful way without addressing poverty?

Moreover, how can the same tough-on-crime mentality that is reserved for adults, is also applied to children, and expect that schools will produce constructive members of society?

In several recent columns I have opined that in order for reform to occur in underperforming schools there must be a corresponding transformation of school culture. If Smiley's work is any indicator, the cultural transformation that has occurred in far too many schools has been to provide children with same failing policies once reserved for adults.

Tavis Smiley Reports, "Education Under Arrest," premieres Tuesday, March 26. Check your local listings or go to the website