04/08/2014 02:57 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline That's Destroying Our Kids

There's no such thing as a "throwaway kid." No child in our culture should be written off as a lost cause, not by a teacher and not by the system in general, certainly not when we're one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on the planet. But that's what is happening day in and day out, in schools across the United States, sometimes willfully and sometimes unwittingly. Regardless of the reason, it has to stop. One of America's great strengths has always been its investment in human capital, and yet somewhere along the line we lost sight of this fact when it comes to our most valuable natural resource as a society: our kids. But while any student can vanish through the cracks, there exist students who are sometimes invisible even while they're in the system. We're talking about low-income, disadvantaged and minority children who often have the deck stacked against them from the outset and who are, more than ever, being pushed through a pipeline that takes them from school directly to prison. It's this school-to-prison pipeline that's been in the news recently, with both the ACLU and President Obama calling attention to it and looking for ways to stop it.

After World War II, the United States had the highest high school graduation rate in the world, but today, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development, we rank 23rd out of 27 industrialized nations. The education trends in this country are abysmal and most parents and educators understand this. But the school-to-prison pipeline may be one of the most insidious overall problems facing a large demographic of the student body today, in part because it's being legally and culturally sanctioned. As parents and everyday Americans, you know it as the "Zero-Tolerance Policy." As young people ourselves, we know it as a misguided overreaction to events like the 1999 Columbine massacre which results in the quiet damning of African-American, Latino, and low-income students to an inevitable life as a second-class citizen. Teachers and school administrators are now vigilant about trying to spot potential deadly threats--the problem is if they're looking for the next school shooter, they're often looking in the wrong place, and kids who don't fit the profile are suffering.

Keeping students safe in school is important, of course, but more and more, disruptive students are finding themselves not merely in the principal's office but in the hands of police and the courts. The policy of taking even the most minor of offenses and bringing the hammer down hard on them--with immediate suspension or expulsion taking the place of communication--is demoralizing to students in general. But Zero-Tolerance seems to be especially hard and disproportionately focused on the kids most likely to be struggling at school anyway. The numbers are staggering: 40% of students expelled from our nation's schools each year are black. 70% of students whose offenses in school wind up being referred to the police are black or Latino. And, nationally, black students are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended from school than their white classmates. In California, where we live, 42% of suspensions are the result of minor violations of school policy, like chewing gum in class, wearing a hat or forgetting a notebook--and in the Los Angeles Unified School District, blacks are six times more likely to be suspended than whites. The situation is much the same for disabled students.

We're failing a vast swath of young people while arguably violating their civil rights, and we're doing it under the guise of keeping schools safe. It's tragic. More than that, it's unconscionable. We're shuttling kids right from the classroom to the courtroom and ensuring that even if they don't end up in jail right away, they're more likely to eventually be kicked out of school entirely or drop out on their own--and that makes them a whopping 63-times more likely to wind up in prison than their peers who go on to graduate and earn a college degree. One way or the other, they're passed over, pushed out, and often put back into the difficult situation from which they came, easy prey for the socioeconomic factors that can lead directly to a life of hopelessness and crime.

So what can be done? On a national scale the White House recently launched an initiative called "My Brother's Keeper," aimed at melding government agencies along with private businesses and non-profits with the goal of, as President Obama says, "help(ing) more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential." But here in Los Angeles, where we as young people--one of us in his sophomore year at Cal and the other a senior in high school--have been through the educational system, there has been more substantial action taken. The Liberty Hill Foundation and its CEO, Shane Goldsmith, whom we've personally worked with in much of our social and racial justice work through our "Foundation Boys" initiative­­ (Liberty Hill was the recipient of the Foundation Boys Award Racial and Social Justice in 2013) was instrumental in passing the L.A. Unified School District School Climate Bill of Rights in May of last year. This one document seeks to roll back the Zero-Tolerance policy that's taken minor infractions and elevated them into suspension-worth offenses. It declares that students cannot be removed from school for catch-all offenses like "willful disruption," with the goal being to keep at-risk kids in school and out of the school-to-prison pipeline. It seeks to address behavioral problems, rather than just shrugging them off and "giving up" on the student exhibiting them.

All of this was a byproduct of the "Brothers, Sons, Selves" initiative, created through Liberty Hill and a pioneering investment by The California Endowment. Through the financial foresight and coordinated progressive philanthropy of TCE leaders like CEO Bob Ross and Regional Program Manager Charles Fields, "Brothers, Sons, Selves" represents a tireless effort to bring social justice back to the classroom by keeping students out of the courtroom. Every kid deserves a shot and it's important to keep in mind that students from underserved communities often enter school behind the eight-ball from the start. We can't simply abandon them -- or worse, willfully push them out -- in the name of some twisted idea of "discipline."

What we're seeing with Zero-Tolerance is not discipline. It's a lie, plain and simple, and an especially underhanded one in that it's a lie masked as a product of fear and a benefit to other students because it supposedly keeps them safe. What it really does, though, is damage society as a whole given that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a high school drop-out will only earn, on average, $20,241 a year, which is more than ten-grand less than the average high school graduate and more than 35-thousand-dollars less than the average person with a bachelor's degree. Bottom line: Our annual GDP could increase by as much as $525 billion if we were to close the gap between white students and their black and Latino peers. No matter your political bent, you can appreciate the social and financial crisis our country is facing here.

Beyond that, though, there is the sickening notion that we're turning our children's schools into militarized zones, with private companies often contracted to take part in drug sweeps and general security. Someone's making money from all of this, from the downfall of the American education system. And there seems to be a method to the madness of pushing out poor performers in the name of making the school "better" overall. We've seen it personally and interacted with hundreds of students who live it every day through our non-profit work in the community. We're failing on a grand scale and not only do many not seem to care -- they're more than content to allow it to happen because they've been told it keeps kids in general safe and schools running smoother. It doesn't. It damages us all in the end. This is America -- and we can do better. We have to do better for the sake of our children and ourselves.