The Zip Codes of America


Ava Dickson '22

1.6 million students attended a school that employed a law enforcement officer, rather than a school counselor

A natural process in a child’s development is disobedience and the need to act out. This manifests in forms such as speaking without permission, breaking rules, and disruptiveness.

 An adults’ natural response to disobedience is discipline. In a school setting, a disruptive student is often written up or sent to the principal’s office as punishment. However, a child’s demographic has begun to play an increasing role in the severity of a child’s punishment. 


A common phrase you can hear muttered in any school’s hallway in America is “I hate school, it feels like jail.” Unfortunately this off the cuff remark is beginning to be the stark reality for many students, the rate of suspension and police intervention in America’s public school system continues to grow each year. As instances of drug abuse and violence in America increases, it is expected that school infractions would reflect this trend, however that is not the case. There is an overwhelming trend of minority students receiving severe punishments for lesser infractions. 


These suspensions are targeting minorities such as Jaylen McChristian, an eleven year old middle school student from West Memphis, who was sent to jail for flipping milk cartons in his elementary school class. The “Atlanta Black Star” published an article detailing Jaylen’s mothers appalment after her son was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, for his rebellious actions. Laura McChristian believes her son was specifically targeted, considering his actions were non- violent and could have been handled within the school. The American public school system has failed their students by targeting minority groups with an unfair level of punishment compared to their white classmates. A study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley’s psychology department found that, “On average, principals and assistant principals gave Black students with a first disciplinary offense 20 percent more severe rating than white students who also had their first offense.”


Public schools utilizing disproportionate disciplinary action are setting their students up for failure, which continues to perpetuate the school to prison pipeline. The ACLU defines the school to prison pipeline as a system wherein there are “children who are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The majority of these children are in minority groups, and many of them are also impoverished. 


In American money is power. Wealth can provide the opportunity to fight back against injustice. Although it is not unheard of for a white student to be unfairly punished, the majority of these kids are being targeted based on their race and socioeconomic background. This is not to say that every minority in America is targeted at their school, and many children can make it through their educational career unscathed – it is not impossible to do so, but the upward social mobility and probability for graduating high school, let alone college, is often determined by one’s zip code rather than individual merit.  


While police intervention continues to increase in schools, so does extended suspensions and expulsions. American public schools are underfunded and lack proper resources. The majority of public high schools only have one counselor representing the entire student population. Children who are targeted with extended suspensions are often stuck at home with no class work or activities to complete. The Center for American Progress states “suspensions contribute to a greater likelihood of dropping out of school and incarceration.” Schools located in low income zip codes do not have the resources to provide continued support for these students.


In modern times everyone advocates for education while placing an emphasis on children attending college. However, this is only reality for privileged children, or for children in a school district with proper funding, which is a privilege within itself. The Census Bureau has created The Opportunity Atlas which details statistics specific to a given neighborhood. According to The Opportunity Atlas, the neighborhood of Village Park located in Memphis Tennessee, has an average household income of eighteen thousand dollars a year, with an incarceration rate of 5.4 percent. The Shelby County School Board has documented that Sheffield High School which is located in the Village Park neighborhood has an average 66 percent graduation rate each year. The East Memphis neighborhood (specifically Tract 47157008500) in Memphis Tennessee has an average household income of forty four thousand dollars a year and an incarceration rate below 1 percent. The White Station High School, located in the East Memphis neighborhood, has a graduation rate of 85 percent according to the Shelby County School Board. According to the “Public School Review” Tennessee’s average statewide graduation rate is 89 percent. Students who live in lower income neighborhoods are disproportionately graduating High School compared to higher income neighborhoods. These students will be placed at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives simply because of their zip code.


Underfunded and short staffed schools continue to completely bypass the standard levels of discipline. According to the ACLU black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate white students are suspended and expelled. Students in minority groups don’t have the same access to resources to fight the system. These schools don’t factor in the lifelong disadvantages these children will face once placed in the system. Once you are in the juvenile court system, it is only an uphill battle to get out. 


A study conducted by “” found “When a student is suspended or expelled, there is a significant increase in his or her likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system the subsequent year.” Entering the system creates discrepancies in students’ education and exposure to outside activities. The lack of a proper education causes most children to revert to joining gangs, or partaking in drug use. 


There is no excuse for children who are violent in school, bring weapons, and use drugs on campus. These offenses deserve to be punished, but these students still deserve the opportunity to grow and learn for their mistakes. In many cases suspensions and law enforcement involvement is needed to ensure a safe learning environment. The problem is allowing non-violent students to slip through the cracks and find themselves in the juvenile court system. 


The American public education system is broken, and it is no one person’s fault. This is a systemic issue that spans much farther than a specific school district. These schools are underfunded and underrepresented by the state which allows the school’s prison pipeline to continue to grow. Federal and state funding towards public education has become so politicized and is sparse in many zip codes. 


Students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended, and according to the ACLU an alarming 1.6 million students attend a public school that has hired a law enforcement officer, rather than a school counselor. The system has allowed for millions of public schools to be overlooked , and the students suffer from this. In America we can not advocate for students to attend college, if we can not do anything to prevent them from being arrested for flipping milk cartons in class.