The Troubling Link Between 'Willful Defiance' and Incarceration For Black Kids

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Zain Murdock
August 16, 2023

“Willful defiance” has a pretty vague definition. In many schools, it essentially means behavior that is disruptive or undermines authority. For Black students, anything from chewing gum to talking back could lead to suspension or expulsion.

The phrase is part of a familiar umbrella of policies called zero tolerance, a major valve in the school-to-prison pipeline. Suspended and expelled students are much more likely to be arrested or drop out, which increases child incarceration rates without addressing the real reasons they act out.

As of 2018, 26 states in the U.S. allowed schools to expel students for willful defiance. Black students make up 33% of national expulsions but are only 15% of the country’s students. But there’s an even broader picture here.

According to author and justice scholar Monique W. Morris, the whole zero tolerance framework in schools came from the already-debunked broken windows theory in policing which operates by not “tolerating” even the smallest misbehavior as a way to prevent worse behavior in the future.

Schools are supposed to prepare our children for the “real world.” But a part of that real world is accepting abuse from police. What do Black youth really deserve? A quality education in a safe environment.