Youth of color are targeted and portrayed as misguided youth who need to be under surveillance. The act of criminality is racialized, thus targeting Black and Brown youth. A place where a student’s knowledge and success should be fostered and supported has become a place where students are criminalized and targeted. School districts utilize suspensions, expulsions, and even arrests to reprimand minor misbehavior.

Among the various reasons why Black and Brown youth are being “pushed out” of school are school closings, lack of relevant curriculum, and harsher punishments such as zero tolerance policies. The demographic that is most affected by zero tolerance policies is youth of color.

Zero tolerance discipline policies essentially authorize suspension or expulsion of students for what the school considers misconduct. This policy of zero tolerance that is being implemented in schools is having a direct effect on the students of color. Minor behaviors receive serious consequences. Having a cell phone or dress code violations can lead to suspension or even expulsion. The false idea that harsh discipline makes schools safer is sending youth of color to the criminal justice system. A single suspension increases the risk of the student being pushed out. A school-based arrest can not only cause emotional trauma for youth, but also derail the student’s job opportunities or acceptance to college. Suspensions lead to expulsions and arrests, ultimately sending millions of students to the criminal justice system for minor behavior. This cycle of punishment perpetuates the oppression forced upon communities of color. The zero tolerance discipline policies were implemented to make schools safer. Yet, research shows that after one generation since the first implementation of these policies, schools are not safer and the youth of color in the schools are being put on a path towards the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline is a direct pathway youth of color are forced upon in school districts. Prison-like environments, harsh discipline, and underinvestment are the foundation for the School-to-Prison Pipeline. The police presence on campus, zero tolerance policies, and school closures are the catalyst to why youth of color are being pushed out of schools and into prisons. Annually, more than 3,000,000 students receive an out of school suspension. More than 70% of students who are involved in school arrests are Black and Brown youth.

The Youth Justice Coalition is an organization that strives to battle injustices placed upon youth of color. Alberto Cazarez, a youth organizer for the Youth Justice Coaliton, addresses the epidemic of the School-to-Jail Track that is spreading among youth of color. A member of the Lobos (Leading Out Brothers and sisters Out of the System) Group, Cazarez says Youth Justice Coalition is constantly in the barrios and school systems trying to fix the problem through campaigns and by leading presentations and workshops.

The Youth Justice Coalition refers to this injustice as the “School-to-Jail Track” opposed to the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” This is because a pipeline only has one way in and one way out. This does not correlate to the experiences of the youth of color. Rather, like a track, there are many ways to get into the justice system.

Cazarez believes the catalyst to the problem is the schools system. The authoritative environment is counterproductive to the progress of students of color. Zero tolerance policies, too, are detrimental to students of color. “The zero tolerance policies are criminalizing young people for being young people,” Cazarez states.

Cazarez believes one way we can overcome the injustices of the School-to-Jail track is through the reconstruction of the school system. He advocates for the removal of barbwire, metal detectors, police on campus and the implementation of on-site counselors and more intervention workers. Intervention workers are counselors who students know and trust. These workers embody the idea of transformative justice. They do not punish the students for misbehavior. The workers sit down with the students and talk about the root of the problem.

Youth Justice Coalition believes in restorative justice. This alternative method gives more support for students of color and rids school systems of policies that criminalize youth.

Despite the cycle of punishment placed upon youth of color, people will continue to put youth where they belong—behind desks, not bars.

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