Tavis Smiley’s Education Under Arrest: Why One and Three Teens are Headed Straight to Prison from the Classroom.

by Lisa McGloiry on April 29, 2013

TavisI’ve been a fan of Tavis Smiley for years. It’s not for the fact that Time magazine named him as the “100 Most Influential People in the World”, or that he has an award-winning talk show on PBS.

It’s not that he’s a leading author, commentator, advocate, and philanthropist. Rather, Smiley is one of those journalists that any one in America would want to sit down and interview for themselves. “Tavis talk to me, what’s really going on?” any one of us would ask of this media giant over a tall glass of milk and cookies at Aunt June’s kitchen table when Smiley comes to town.

Smiley is someone who cares to examine real issues and raise awareness for societal concerns that may or may not be popular with the media mainstream but somehow manages to get celebrities, politicians, college students, corporate giants, academia, and common folk talking too.

Think of my excitement when I had the recent opportunity to attend his latest documentary, entitled, “Education Under Arrest” at the California Arts and Endowment Center as a volunteer with Green Lifestyle Film Festival, Inc. Smiley examines how at-risk teens with disciplinary problems are handled as a result of “Zero Tolerance” practices that have been adopted at schools across America. A “Zero Tolerance” policy can escalate into jail time for teens who commit even the smallest infractions to more serious offenses.

Screenings of “Education Under Arrest” occurred last month in major cities all across the United States, leading up to its primetime special on PBS that premiered on March 26th. “Education Under Arrest” is part of the American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to help find solutions to address the teenage dropout crisis in America.

Initial Thoughts and the Facts

tavis2My initial viewpoint at the start of the film was that teens with disciplinary problems should be dealt with severely and that may mean jail time. What I didn’t know after researching this subject further was that smaller offenses such at gum chewing, foul language or even truancy are dealt with through suspension, expulsion and arrest.

Tavis Smiley Reports that most teens in the juvenile detention systems are there for non-violent crimes and 68% of urban high schools have police (SROs) patrolling their corridors.

The national report card is not good. According to Smiley, one in every three teens who is arrested, is arrested in school. Experts and advocates who work on behalf of these at risk teens are concerned that zero tolerance practices can seriously impact their exposure to receive a quality education. This is a system that focuses on punishment as a form of rehabilitation – the idea that we must criminalize our youth instead of reforming and reintegrating them back into school.

In fact, reports show that a high percentage of teens that are incarcerated in juvenile detention centers withdraw or drop out of high school. A leading judge in the film reminds us that children under eighteen cannot vote, but a fourteen year old can be locked up. The film reminds us that when a teen is incarcerated he’s still being schooled from the best, and his/her mentor may be a seasoned criminal. Think of it this way; Johnny Doe is not learning from Ms. Franklin, Main St. High School’s English Teacher of the Year in Room 486, but from Juvenile Detention cellmate no. #100013 in ward eight.

While I do agree with Smiley that reform in this area is still needed, I still have my concerns. There are young people who commit serious offenses even leading to murder and I believe Zero Tolerance practices in these situations should be justified. School administrators have a fiduciary duty to put safety precautions in place for those students in their care. However, the Zero Tolerance practices of today stem for the 1999 initiative put in place as a response to the Columbine tragedy. After 14 years, maybe it’s at least time for a careful review or possible overhaul to improve upon what offenses should qualify. Many schools across America continue to operate under this system with no further thought to consider methods other than lock up as a first response to disciplinary problems, or even as a last resort.

Questions to Make You Ponder

The connection between the juvenile justice system and the drop out rate of America’s youth is a crisis that will have to be dealt with to save America’s youth. Where do we want our teens educated; in school, on the street, or in jail? Adults deserve a second chance, shouldn’t teens be given one, and when? What are the best ways to deal with teen violent offenders and rehabilitate non-violence ones without criminalizing them?

These are questions that “Education Under Arrest” makes us consider along with getting more information to join the frontlines of reform to make changes for the youth in our own communities. This is precisely why Smiley is considered one of America’s leading journalists. I like a journalist who can get out of the comfort of his own interview chair and take viewers to the unglamorous areas of Washington State, Louisiana, Missouri and California and debate this issue with teens, educators, law enforcement professionals, judges and advocates. I encourage you to watch this film. You won’t be disappointed.

Lisa McGloiry

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