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School-to-Prison Pipeline is a Direct Policy Descendant of Nixon’s War on Drugs

Nixon’s drug policies that began in the 1970s seeped into our nation’s education policy 20 years later, and today funnels hundreds of thousands of youths from schools into prison.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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As we prepare to vote for the next president of the United States, it is important for voters to carefully consider the character of the candidates. Why? Because although a presidential term only lasts for four years, a president’s policies and legacy can cause devastation for decades.

Case in point: President Richard Nixon and “The War on Drugs.”

Nixon’s drug policies that began in the 1970s seeped into our nation’s education policy 20 years later, and today funnels hundreds of thousands of youths from schools into prison.

Voters should keep in mind that we are entrusting the president to influence federal and state policies that shape our day-to-day existence. Much of what happens — in our schools, with our food and drinking water, with our health care, jobs, housing and transportation — is shaped by policies that are ultimately put in place, reauthorized or rescinded by people appointed or influenced by the president.

In his book “Smoke and Mirrors,” author Dan Baum detailed his interview with Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who quoted Nixon as saying, “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

Baum noted that the year before Nixon declared drug use to be “public enemy No. 1,” the number of deaths (3,707) from the flu was nearly double the number of deaths (1,899) involving legal and illegal drugs combined.

Decades after his presidency, Nixon’s policies wreak havoc on our nation’s youths. The school-to-prison pipeline is a direct descendant of Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, reauthorized by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which included the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act.

This was then reauthorized by President Bill Clinton as the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994, which tied federal school funding to student behavior reporting and mandated zero-tolerance policies.

This effectively diverted educator attention away from teaching and learning toward scrutinizing student behavior and incentivized over-disciplining students and over-reporting behavioral infractions to demonstrate a need for additional funds.

Zero-tolerance policies mandated harsh punishments for students’ behavioral infractions without consideration for the circumstances surrounding them, and mandated schools to report specific student behavior to the criminal justice or juvenile delinquency system.

These policies then converged with President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which centered schooling on accountability and standardized testing and incentivized pushing low-scoring students off school rosters. Together, these policies cemented the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Manifesting Nixon’s intentions, the school-to-prison pipeline affects African American students at a rate three times higher than all other students. A 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights showed that 260,000 public school students nationwide were referred to law enforcement, and 92,000 students were subjected to school-related arrests during the 2011-2012 school year alone.

Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward, who worked with Carl Bernstein in the early 1970s to investigate and expose the Watergate scandal, recently said: “We missed the story. The story was character.” The story should have exposed Nixon’s character before he assumed office, Woodward said, so voters could knowingly cast their votes for president.

And that’s exactly what voters need to keep in mind when heading to the polls. In this age of social media, we can knowingly cast our votes by looking beyond the headlines and sound bites and examining each presidential candidate’s character for ourselves.

We must pay attention to how candidates behave outside of planned settings. Doing so will provide insight on the content of their character. Their Twitter posts, interactions with rally attendees, reactions to one another, and their history of leadership and policy decisions are far more telling than scripted responses at debates and public events.

As Nixon taught us, our president’s character indeed matters. Let’s use our breadth of resources to elect a president whose character we can trust to uplift us all — today and in our future. Because, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Lorna Hermosura is a research fellow in the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis and a doctoral student in the education policy and planning program at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman, San Antonio Express News and the Rio Grande Guardian.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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