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Reporting His New PBS Special Brought Tavis Smiley to Tears

“Education Under Arrest,” the new hour-long PBS special from Tavis Smiley, will make its debut at 8 p.m. tonight. The special will focus on how zero tolerance policies in schools, put into effect after the Columbine massacre, have created a school-to-prison pipeline–expelling children or sending them to jail for offenses as petty as swearing, or chewing gum in class.

We spoke to Smiley last week, and he said this topic had left him emotionally drained in a way he had never experienced before in his more than two decades in the media.

“This is one of the most emotional pieces of work I’ve really done,” he tells FishbowlLA. “This has never happened before, but I had to stop camera at one point because I started crying. We had to take a break. I couldn’t keep it together.”

Smiley says it was the story of Kenyatta and Kennisha–sisters from New Orleans who were expelled from their charter high school for fighting after one was jumped and the other attempted to come to her rescue–that left him particularly raw.

“Both girls end up penalized because there is no gray area for adults to make decisions about these issues. They were both almost perfect 4.0 students. To see these two girls, as bright and full of life as can be, treated in a punitive and pejorative way, I had to stop camera because I started crying.”

“Bad things do happen to good people. I understand that. But I couldn’t wrap my head around why the adults in this situation couldn’t have figured out a better way to handle it.”

Smiley traveled all over the country for his piece. But he also did quite a bit of reporting from his home base here in Los Angeles. The special should be of intrigue for all you LAUSD watchers out there.

More details on the special and on Smiley’s thoughts on school zero tolerance policies here.

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