The rights of young people are increasingly threatened as schools implement more policies designed to police and punish a wide range of behaviors. Many of these policies are known collectively as part of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They involve a variety of elements including increased police presence, unreasonable rules, a failure to respect students’ right to due process, and harsh punishments. Through these policies, schools ultimately treat students like prisoners and therefore undermine their rights in the education system.

Unreasonable rules

At school, young people must tolerate rules that many adults would consider unacceptable in the workplace. These can include rules prohibiting high-fives, talking during lunch, only allowing scheduled bathroom breaks, and giving students less lunch time than is required by federal employment guidelines. In fact, schools have some of the strictest rules of any government institutions, harsher than those at national parks and public libraries.

Zero tolerance

Zero tolerance policies are policies that severely punish any violation of a rule, regardless of the particular circumstances of each case. For example, a zero tolerance policy might require a school to expel any student who gets into a fight, even if that student was fighting in self-defense or to defend a friend. Zero tolerance has led to students being suspended or expelled for holding up three fingers in a school photo, having a clear plastic toy gun in a backpack, or even disarming a school shooter and saving other people’s lives.

These policies are unfair and don’t make schools safer. By treating all cases the same schools ensure that real problems remained unaddressed. In one study, a task force reviewed 10 years of research on the effects of zero tolerance policies in middle schools and secondary schools. The task force concluded that zero tolerance policies not only fail to make schools safer or more effective in handling student behavior, but they actually increase instances of troubled behavior and dropout rates. Students that are punished for minor infractions can feel unwelcome in their own schools and violates their right to due process.

School disruption charges

At least 22 states and many cities and towns make school disruption a crime. While these laws were initially enacted to prevent outsiders from disrupting a student’s right to education, they are often broad and confusing to understand. The vagueness of the laws means they are inevitably applied unevenly, depending on the moods and biases of the adults enforcing them. For example, South Dakota definition of disruption includes “boisterous” behavior, while Arkansas outlaws “annoying conduct.” These unclear rules leave students vulnerable to unfair treatment, because they can potentially be punished for any behavior that adults decide falls under these categories.

These laws are oftentimes overused as well. In South Carolina, disturbing school was the second-most common accusation used against juveniles after misdemeanor assault – which amounted to an average of seven students were charged every day.

Additionally, judges across the country have different definitions of “disturbance,”which can complicate the issue of school disruption charges even further. In Georgia, a court concluded that a fight qualifies as disturbing school if it attracts student spectators. However, a Maryland court found that attracting an audience does not create a disturbance unless normal school activities are delayed or cancelled. In Alabama, a court found that a student had disturbed school because his principal had to meet with him to discuss his behavior. An appeals court overturned the ruling on the grounds that talking with students was part of the principal’s job. Clearly, there is no consensus on what disruption means or when students should be punished for it. This leaves young people at risk during the school day, when they should be able to learn without fear of being punished for something they don’t even realize is “illegal.”