Ross urges rehabilitation, not punishment

RUBY WALLAU | Staff Photographer
Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, speaks about education reform and decreasing school suspensions in the Hall of Philosophy on Thursday.



What do the infamous California Three Strikes law and American high schools’ disciplinary systems have in common? According to Robert Ross, they’re both hurting America’s youth more than they’re helping.

Robert Ross is the CEO and president of the California Endowment. But when he took a sabbatical from his main job to do research to find out why young American men of color are struggling, his data showed some startling results. He shared his findings in Thursday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy, titled “Our Boys: Love, Data and Radar.”

“The nation’s response to the drug epidemic of the 1980s, particularly the cocaine epidemic, was not more mental services and health treatments,” Ross said. “The nation’s response was punishment. The nation’s response in schools was something called ‘zero tolerance.’ It was a punishment frame that lives in this nation to today.“

In the 1980s the price of cocaine plummeted, causing a spike in drug use and the associated societal problems of crime and deteriorating health that come with it. To combat this issue, Ross said, America started enacting harshly punitive laws that have caused lasting impact.

Following this spike, Ross said, today one-third of all black children will spend time in prison.  He took leave from work to figure out why and how to solve it.

After analyzing his research, Ross found four predictive traits stemming from poor emotional health that are predictive factors to a life of crime: Having literacy skills below a third- grade level; chronic absenteeism from school; truancy; or suspension from school.

To fix the problem, society needs to more actively monitor its youth for these traits, Ross said.

“The way to think about disrupting the voracious school-to-prison pipeline that affects young men of color in this country is that we really need to get smart about radar,” he said.

Elaborating on some of his factors, Ross focused most on reading levels and suspension. He said the third-grade reading level is the line between where one learns to read and where one reads to learn. If a student’s reading level is below this threshold, all further learning possibilities will be hindered, a process that leads to a life of academic trouble and the other three predictive factors.

Regarding suspension, Ross offered some troubling statistics. According to his numbers, when schools switched to “zero-tolerance” policies, suspensions of white students increased by 50 percent, while they increased by 100 percent for Latino students and 300 percent for black students.

Any student who is suspended, he continued, has twice the chance of dropping out of school and three times the chance of coming into conflict with the legal system.

To Ross, this method of exclusive punishment is counterproductive and only adds to the cycle.

“This nation can no longer incarcerate its way to the community safety it wants,” Ross said. “There is something called the school-to-prison pipeline and it is robust, and it is a system. It is not an accident.”

Ross did, however, offer some alternatives. He mentioned several schools using different techniques such as using civilian truancy officers instead of uniformed police to get kids back into school; ceasing the suspension system at large; or offering mandatory meditation periods during school to unwind and defuse. All three systems led to success in decreasing crime and increasing test scores, according to Ross.

“There’s no one solution, but courageous school principals in school districts are beginning to understand that the worst thing that you can do to a troubled young person is to kick them out of school,” Ross said.

Moving forward, Ross said, America needs a new justice system — legally and academically — that seeks to fix the reasons behind why crimes are committed, as opposed to exiling those who commit crimes.

“We need a new narrative in this country,” Ross said.