Deadly consequences

"Zero tolerance" policies to stop youth violence may actually make schools less safe, an expert says.

Published March 9, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

When 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams walked into court Wednesday in his oversized orange jumpsuit to be arraigned for wounding 13 people and killing two classmates at Santana High School on Monday, it was hard not to notice how young the teenage killer seemed, no matter how heinous his crime.

But whatever the investigation of Williams uncovers, one thing is already clear: The high school freshman will be tried as an adult, thanks to California's latest crackdown on juvenile crime, Proposition 21, a ballot measure that passed last year and requires that teenagers as young as 14 who are accused of murder be tried as adults. Now Williams' attorneys are trying to use his case to challenge Prop. 21 by arguing that its provisions, which automatically move their client's case to adult court, are unconstitutional.

But Prop. 21 may not be the last tough-on-crime approach to juvenile violence. Already the Santee, Calif., shootings have led to now-familiar calls for action to reduce the problem: tougher gun control, stricter security on high school campuses, as well as, in the words of President Bush, teaching children "the difference between right and wrong." But before the latest school shooting leads to more Draconian anti-juvenile crime measures, it's worth noting that violence by youths has sharply declined in the last few years, even as killings at Columbine and Santana grabbed headlines. And some experts now think our hysteria about school violence may actually be limiting our attempts to curb it.

"You're five times as likely to get killed on your way to school or from it than in school," says Frank Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied crime statistics for 30 years. "So if you want to create a metal-detector society, you better put the metal detectors on the other side of the schoolyard." The juvenile murder rate, Zimring notes, is at its lowest level in nearly 20 years. According to the Justice Department, juvenile murder arrests dropped 68 percent between their peak year of 1993 and 1999. And schools are still the safest place that kids can be.

But the public doesn't seem to think so. A Gallup poll taken last April asked whether people felt a random school shooting like the one at Columbine was likely to happen in their area; 30 percent said they felt it was "very likely," 36 percent said "somewhat likely" and only 13 percent said it would be "very unlikely.

The circumstances of the Santana shootings raise the possibility, however, that our paranoia about school shootings -- and the "zero tolerance" policies schools adopt to crack down on potentially violent kids -- may even be counterproductive. Williams' friends told reporters that the boy had been boasting about shooting up the school for several days before claiming he was kidding, but they didn't tell anyone, because they didn't want to get him in trouble.

"By creating zero tolerance," Zimring says, "you raise the price of telling an adult about what a kid you like told you. Under those circumstances, you get exactly what you had here: a reluctance to tell on your friends."

Jaana Juvonen, a behavioral scientist at the Rand Institute, says the typical solutions that have arisen to combat juvenile violence "may not only be ineffective but may actually backfire." Zero-tolerance policies, she says, are the worst example.

"We think of zero tolerance as the school's way of showing kids how they will not tolerate that kind of behavior," Juvonen says. "But this is a mere tactic to punish; it's retribution. We focus on the act and we forget the motives, and by doing that we may actually increase a kid's risk for future behavior problems, and at least the kid's alienation from school."

Another popular approach is to put police officers on campus -- last month, the Department of Justice announced $70 million in new grants for COPS [Community Oriented Policing Services] in Schools programs in 47 states. But there was a cop on duty at Santana High, and he wasn't able to stop the freshman from sneaking a pistol into school and opening fire in the boys' bathroom.

Juvonen says she has never seen a study indicating that cops-in-schools programs have any benefit. She says such programs please school officials because they send a visible message "that our community is doing everything we can, that parents have peace of mind when they drop off their kids at the middle school because there's police standing at the front door."

But students might feel differently. "There is some preliminary evidence to show that in these schools where they have metal detectors and use security checks -- where the physical safety issues are very salient -- that that's where kids' anxieties are heightened. It's a constant reminder of how unsafe the school is."

The most important aspect of preventing school violence, Juvonen says, is in fact psychological safety. A report from the surgeon general in January backs up that notion. It calls on the public to address school violence as a health issue -- to look at stresses like violence at home and on the streets, as well as the impact of drugs that lead to violent behavior. It also states emphatically that incarcerating teenagers or trying them in adult court for their offenses only makes it more likely that they will become criminals for life.

Yet trying kids as adults is exactly what California voters decided to do when they passed Proposition 21 last year. Now Williams will be tried as an adult for the Santana shootings, and if convicted, he would also serve time in an adult prison thanks to Prop. 21. If he's convicted, he'll face more than 500 years in prison.

An unprecedented alliance came together to oppose Prop 21 -- including the California Youth Authority and California Juvenile Court Judges, the Parent Teacher Association and the League of Women Voters (organizations that rarely take positions on such issues). But they didn't defeat it. Early cases show that prosecutors have exercised restraint in moving juvenile cases into the adult court system. And a state court recently struck down a provision that gave prosecutors, rather than judges, the discretion about whether to do so.

But what the future holds for juvenile offenders is uncertain, and school shootings only intensify the hysteria. "There's been a crisis and now everybody and their grandma seems to come up with a solution, and people are going wildly after these programs," Juvonen says. "What's scary about it is not only the money that gets poured into some programs where there's no proof of their effectiveness, but that when you start probing and questioning some of the underlying assumptions of these programs, you say, why would this ever work?"

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

MORE FROM Fiona Morgan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

School Violence