08/01/2011 03:31 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2011

Paper Planes!

An unexpected day's delay in recent airline travel provided an experiential backdrop that gave insight into the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance policies in public education. Scheduled for a 12:45pm departure, my plane was grounded due to a door malfunction. I rescheduled my flight for departure the next morning. This unexpected delay provided the unexpected opportunity for my four year-old-son to travel with me. His presence brought an exorbitant amount of courtesies not present the previous day as I attempted to travel as a single adult passenger.

When getting in line to present our boarding passes before passing through security, we were redirected to a significantly shorter line reserved for families with young children. After presenting our passes and preparing to proceed through security, we were promptly redirected to an empty line, again, given priority as passengers due to my son's presence. Once through security, and walking through the terminal, my son was kindly given a sticker badge. We boarded the plane before the other passengers. And during our one-stop flight, my son was greeted by the pilot, given wings and an activity book, and had his name called out over the PA system welcoming him aboard.

Throughout our travels, the airlines repeatedly made my son's successful travel their top priority. Their entire system appeared designed to ensure the safe and successful passage of children to their final destination. No amount of encouragement or support was deemed too great.

Conversely, recent studies show that many children are not given such priority passenger status towards making safe and successful passage through the public education system. One study, conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, shows a gross disparity nationally in school suspensions and expulsions between African Americans and Latinos and their white counterparts through unfairly levied zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance is "an approach to school discipline that imposes removal from school for a broad array of school code violations - from violent behavior to truancy and dress code violations." The center's findings conclude that "despite nearly two decades of implementation of zero tolerance disciplinary policies and their application to mundane and non-violent misbehavior, there is no evidence that frequent reliance on removing misbehaving students improves school safety or student behavior. Because suspended students miss instructional time, frequent use of out-of-school suspension also reduces students' opportunity to learn."

While the study noted that "teachers and principals must use all effective means at their disposal to maintain safety and to provide the most effective learning environments practicable", the study also noted that "Concerns about lost instructional time, as well as other possible harmful side effects from suspension, are amplified by consistent findings that African-American and Latino youth are over-represented in school suspensions and that the increased use of suspension has been largest for poor and minority children." For many of our most needy children, instead of being considered primary passengers when progressing through public education, they are extended all the courtesies of a known terrorist.

The implementation of zero tolerance policies have left many impoverished and minority youth stranded at the gate, grounded on the runway, or forcefully removed prematurely unable to reach the ultimate destination of academic success. Such is the case for a young member of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church in Dallas, thirteen-year-old Joe Wallace. Entering the eighth grade this fall, Joe has experienced learning difficulties due to emotional concerns. Being African American, a male, and possessing learning difficulties makes Joe among the most likely students to be expelled under zero tolerance policies according to most studies. No stranger to expulsions and suspensions, in a recently televised interview, Lakashia Wallace, Joe's mother, expressed her frustration with zero tolerance: "You were disruptive in class today. Let's expel you for two days. That's zero tolerance you know, but that's what we're facing." Unnecessary and over-utilized suspensions and expulsions have made Joe and others like him, likely candidates to drop out of school and to begin a life of crime.

Zero tolerance policies have seemingly placed countless youth on paper planes, planes whose flight potential towards academic success is suspect at best. Some planes have such malfunction that they will never leave the ground. As a nation, how can we continue to repeatedly place the safe and successful academic passage of our youth last, yet continue to consider ourselves to be a great nation? For the sainted words of Dietrich Bonheoffer remain true to this day, "The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children."

With these discrepancies between the purported purpose of zero tolerance policies and their actual effect, such polices deter academic achievement rather than empower it, leaving our youth forced to board a public education system with a weakened and unfairly mediated form of discipline possessing the structural integrity of paper planes. Where is the care and concern for our children in that?

Unfortunately, there is only one possible response: it is M.I.A.