For the last 15 years, the United States has had a love affair with "zero-tolerance policies" and this week's Ohio headlines citing the suspension of 10-year-old Nathan Entingh for pretending to use his finger as a gun is a prime example. Politicians loved it, schools loved it, parents loved it, and law enforcement loved it. But as the new critically acclaimed documentary, Kids for Cash, reveals, it may be that no one loved it more than former Luzerne County, Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella, who encouraged local schools to send their misbehaving children to him, so he could promptly dispatch them to facilities for juvenile delinquents. Ciavarella crushed the spirits of thousands of children behind closed doors in hearings that lasted a minute or two, with little regard for the constitutional rights or well-being of the kids who came before him.
The love affair depicted in Kids for Cash has proven to be more like a "fatal attraction" for those involved, including former Judge Ciavarella who is now serving a 28-year federal prison sentence.
In a rather timely twist of fate, at the very same time Kids for Cash debuted in movie theaters across the nation, the Obama administration has announced two new federally-supported initiatives to turn back the clock on zero tolerance and to promote justice, most especially for young black men and other youth of color.
On January 8th, the Departments of Justice and Education announced new guidelines to tackle harsh zero tolerance policies in schools nationwide, with a particular concern for how unfairly those policies affect youth of color and youth with educational and mental health disabilities.
Decrying the notion that every school discipline problem should lead to a 911 call, Attorney General Eric Holder stated, "A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal's office, not in a police precinct." He continued, "Too often, so-called zero-tolerance policies make students feel unwelcome in their own schools. They disrupt the learning process and can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people, increasing their likelihood of future contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems."
Secretary Arne Duncan added "The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is frankly long overdue."
Justice for youth is also an important element of President Obama's new initiative called My Brother's Keeper, involving several federal agencies and funding programs. The initiative is a large-scale effort to reverse the horrific statistics chronicling the persistent over-representation of young black men and other youth of color in the justice system -- many of them sent there directly from schools. There is a direct connection between zero tolerance policies and the over-incarceration of young black men; and thankfully, we finally have federal leadership that is ready and willing to take a stand. "I had people who encouraged me, not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders," said President Obama. "And they pushed me to work hard, and study hard, and make the most of myself. They never gave up on me, and so I didn't give up on myself."
Too often we have heard it said that "there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." For too long, we have tolerated a level of intolerance for children that has deprived millions of youth of their educational opportunities, stifled their social, emotional and intellectual growth in juvenile correctional facilities (despite overwhelming research confirming that they do more harm than good), and deprived our communities of their productive participation and engagement. For too long, we have tolerated the criminalization of adolescence, abdicating our responsibilities as parents, educators and community members to discipline and manage our own children. For too long, we have tolerated the imposition of severe consequences for simple mistakes -- at a cost we can no longer endure.
There is nothing tolerable about zero tolerance policies. And now the stars are finally aligned to do something about them.