The failure of zero tolerance

A nationwide crackdown on students has resulted in outrageous punishments that disproportionately affect minorities.

Published August 29, 2001 7:27PM (EDT)

As children return to school this month, they can expect to face some uninspired teachers, an occasional moment of lunchroom humiliation and onerous piles of homework. That they knew. What they also face, and may be unaware of, is suspension, banishment and encounters with the police, under new zero tolerance disciplinary policies with extraordinarlily broad definitions of offensive or dangerous behavior.

For example, students older than 13 who attend public school in Mississippi are now subject to the educational equivalent of a "three strikes" law. Passed by the Legislature last spring, this bill allows for the expulsion of a student deemed to have been "disruptive" in class three times over the course of a year. A state NAACP executive board member was quoted in a local newspaper as saying that her 17-year-old son, who had a cold, was kicked out of class after taking a tissue off his teacher's desk without permission. Under the new statute, that act could constitute strike one. "If this rule were in effect this year, he wouldn't be graduating," she said. "He'd be on strike seven."

A 17-year-old honors student in Arkansas begins his senior year with an even more ominous cloud over his head. His college scholarship is in danger because of a 45-day sentence to an alternative school. His offense? An arbitrary search of his car by school officials in the spring revealed no drugs, but a scraper and pocketknife that his father had inadvertently left there the night before when he was fixing the rearview mirror. Despite anguished pleas of extenuating circumstances by the desperate father, the school system has so far adamantly insisted that automatic punishments for weapon possession in school are inviolate.

In a sense, though, this student should consider himself fortunate. At least he wasn't arrested. In a similar incident in Florida, an 18-year-old National Merit scholar was pulled out of class, handcuffed, charged with a felony and banned from her graduation. A police officer had passed by her car and spotted a kitchen knife lying in the passenger seat. She had left it there accidentally after using it the weekend before to open boxes. Although no one disputed her explanation, her principal, citing the need for "fairness," declined her request for leniency.

How did we get to the point where such innocent mistakes and minor misdeeds have become grounds for expelling and arresting students? Where did the infiltration of a criminal justice mentality in schools become so blatant as to subject students to "three strikes" laws? And why do these practices continue to be justified in the name of fairness and school safety?

The short answer, in an increasingly fractious national debate over these questions, can be summed up by the following phrase: "Zero Tolerance Run Amok."

Like many policies that go disastrously awry, the original impulse behind the creation of zero tolerance statutes was a reasonable one. First enacted by state legislatures and eventually by Congress in 1994, these measures were aimed at dangerous students who brought guns to school. Over the past seven years, however, disciplinary policies mandating severe punishments -- usually suspensions, expulsions and, increasingly, referral to law enforcement -- have been expanded in many school districts to cover a broad canvas of student behaviors, including possession of all weapons (which can include everything from real fireams to beepers, "gun-shaped" medallions and nail clippers), drugs (not just marijuana and cocaine but Midol, asthma medication, and Certs), and alcohol (mouthwash qualifies), along with threats, truancy, tardiness, and vague, catch-all categories like "insubordination" and "disrespect. "

At its most extreme, evocation of zero tolerance has resulted in an 11-year-old being hauled off in a police van for packing a plastic knife in her lunchbox to cut chicken; a 14-year-old held in an adult jail and charged with "strong-armed" theft for stealing $2 from his classmate; a fifth-grader expelled for a year for hiding razor blades from a friend he thought might use them to harm another; a fourth grader suspended for wearing a Tweety Bird chain on his neck; and, in a tale that would be comic if it weren't true, a 6-year-old cited for "sexual harassment" for running out of the bath naked in his own home to tell the bus driver to wait for him.

Those are the incidents that make headlines. Less chronicled is the fact that, in many schools, zero tolerance has become a convenient tool for disposing of more and more children of increasingly young ages -- disproportionately poor and minority -- who may be irritating, problematic or troublesome, but hardly dangerous.

The number of students suspended each year almost doubled from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 1998; an additional 87,000 were expelled that year. While it is difficult to obtain timely, accurate data on this, anecdotal evidence certainly supports the conclusion that, in the wake of the Columbine shooting in 1999, these figures swelled even further. The numbers in some districts are staggeringly high. In Jefferson County, Fla., for example, 43 percent of the high school students and 31 percent of middle school students were suspended at least once in 1998. In Wisconsin, suspensions have increased 34 percent since 1991-92. Between 1994, when Chicago implemented its zero tolerance policy, and 1999, the annual number of students expelled there jumped from 23 to 737.

Not all of these students are committing mayhem in schools. Indeed, Indiana University professor Russell Skiba analyzed disciplinary data at both the district and national levels, and found referrals for the most serious infractions (drugs, weapons, gangs) to be "relatively infrequent." Rather, most discipline is levied on students who are tardy, absent, disrespectful or "non-compliant." In Milwaukee, for example, where, in 1998, between one-half and one-third of all middle- and high school students were suspended at least once, 97 percent of infractions involved no weapons, drugs or alcohol.

Such statistics raise serious concerns about a trend in which education is routinely denied to so many students -- under the rationale of discipline. The repercussions are significant. Most obviously, suspending a student increases the likelihood that he or she will fail academically, particularly in today's test-driven environments. Because fewer than half of the states require these kids to be placed in alternative settings, long suspensions also wreak havoc on their families, few of which possess the resources for private school or tutoring. Instead, banished students are simply released -- unsupported, unsupervised and frequently angry -- onto the streets. This is hardly a prescription for increased community safety.

Psychologically, such punishments can be devastating. They offer little in the way of instructive value, and exacerbate students' sense of alienation and distrust of authority. James Comer and Alain Poussaint, two of the nation's leading child psychologists, warn that overly harsh punishment "either destroys a child's spirit, has no effect at all, worsens the problem, or makes it more difficult for you to work with the child in school -- he or she no longer trusts you."

For those teenagers already disengaging from school, suspensions are particularly counterproductive. During a developmental period when their most urgent need is to connect and form trusting relationships, these sanctions isolate them from the only community they may know. Susan Black, education research consultant, has noted that "these kids often interpret suspension as a one-way ticket out of school -- a message of rejection that alienates them from ever returning to school." The ensuing chain reaction is depressingly predictable: school failure, dropping out, arrest and incarceration.

Not surprisingly, there is a strong racial subtext to this phenomenon. Minority children, particularly black males, are suspended, expelled and arrested in disproportionately high numbers. Nationwide, in 1998-99, African-American students accounted for 33 percent of all those suspended and 31 percent of all those expelled, yet made up only about 17 percent of all students.

In many districts, the disparities are significantly higher. "Opportunities Suspended," a report released by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Advancement Project, notes that in South Carolina, for example, black children represented only 42 percent of public school enrollment, but 61 percent of those charged with a disciplinary code violation.

According to "Schoolhouse Hype," a publication of the Justice Policy Institute, minority students in Maryland and Massachusetts are suspended and expelled at rates of two to three times that of whites. Recent studies conducted by local newspapers in Florida and Rhode Island found even wider racial disparities in suspension rates in those states.

Because this data is often so sketchy and difficult to obtain, the reasons for these disparities are not clear. But Russ Skiba's research takes issue with the common argument that these inequities exist because black males commit more serious infractions. He found that minority students are, in fact, disciplined more frequently and severely for less serious, and more subjective, offenses, such as "defiance of authority" or "disrespect" than their white peers; categories that offer more leeway for prejudice and stereotyping to become factors. (These also are categories of behavior that are most easily addressed through less Draconian measures.)

Skiba concludes that, when viewed alongside other data about racial disparities in school discipline, the disproportionate representation of African-Americans in office referrals, suspension and expulsion is evidence of a "pervasive and systematic bias."

The issue of racial disparities in school discipline cannot be separated from the conditions under which so many minority students attend school. These include overcrowded classrooms, a preponderance of poorly trained teachers and inadequate counseling staffs, and unchallenging curricula. All of these factors contribute to school settings described by Pedro Noguera, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as "large, impersonal and foreboding, a place where bells and security guards attempt to govern the movements of students, and where students, more often than not, have lost sight of the fact that education and personal growth are ostensibly the reasons why they have been required to go on a daily basis to this anonymous institution." It is in such environments, marked by heightened distrust between students, teachers and administrators, that zero tolerance thrives.

With police now a ubiquitous presence in so many of these schools, lawyers and children's advocates throughout the country have noted the vast increase in recent years in the numbers of minority children, some as young as 10 years old, who are being formally charged for behaviors that, in the past, would have resulted in little more than a visit to the principal's office.

They cite instances where throwing snowballs and kicking in the playground have become "assault with a deadly weapon," where flicking rubber bands during school assembly has been elevated to a "public disturbance," and where betting on baseball games has become "extortion." This situation has led many to observe that a parallel tracking system is in effect in our nation's schools: one feeding mostly white, affluent and middle class students to college, the other feeding poor, minority kids to prison.

The harshness of these practices would suggest that we are in the throes of an epidemic of school violence. The majority of the public, fueled by inflamed political rhetoric about youthful "superpredators" and widely publicized -- though still rare -- incidents of student shootings, apparently perceives that we are. But statistics released by the Justice Policy Institute and the Department of Education indicate that, in fact, crime has been steadily declining in public schools since 1990. In any given year, a student is three to four times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be the victim of violence in school. A recent bipartisan congressional working group concluded that: "Statistically speaking, schools are among the safest places for children to be." (It also is the case that few of the school shooting episodes were carried out by minority students.)

Try telling that to panicky school officials this fall. After the school shooting in March in Santee, Calif., many began to indiscriminately pounce upon any student action that could even remotely be considered a "threat." In the process, the distinctions between serious threats, carelessly muttered outbursts, stupid pranks, and even innocuous lists became blurred, if not erased altogether.

In Irvington, N.J., two 8-year-olds were arrested and charged with "making terrorist threats" for wielding a paper gun in class. In Illinois, an honors student and musician was suspended and kicked out of the band for making a list of individuals who "ticked him off." In Arkansas a 13-year-old cheerleader and basketball player passed a note to a friend as part of a game of insults. The note said: "We cant decide if we should burn you or bury you." Everyone agreed that this was only a joke; still she was suspended for 10 days, and referred to the county juvenile officer.

In Florida, a seventh grader was charged with a felony and suspended for 10 days after telling another student on the bus that he planned to bring a bomb and gun to school, then immediately stating that he was kidding. Although the principal recognized that the student had no plans to harm anyone, he maintained that zero tolerance statutes offered him "no leeway or room" to impose a lesser sanction.

This overreaction was taken to its illogical extreme in Manalapan-Englishtown, N.J. A local prosecutor met with school officials there to insist that all threats, no matter how minor, result in automatic suspensions and referrals to the district attorney. Apparently, this edict was taken very, very literally by school officials. The New York Times reported that, within a span of less than two months, 50 kids -- most under 10 years old -- were suspended and given police records for blurting out statements like "I oughtta murder his face" in a fit of pique.

Admittedly, it's understandable that, in the aftermath of a widely reported incident of school violence, officials would be squeamish and reactive. But, by anyone's standards, can referring kindergarteners to the district attorney for making statements they hear at home and on television be considered a rational approach to school safety?

A more plausible explanation lies in Noguera's suggestion that such actions serve a symbolic, rather than deterrent purpose. When a situation is perceived as being overly chaotic, "the act of punishment becomes an important exercise for showing who has control." Skiba backs up this view, writing, "Unprepared for serious violence, yet under intense pressure to do something, it is unsurprising that administrators choose remedies, such as zero tolerance and security technology, that they perceive as fast acting."

Within this fearful climate, fanned by political "get tough" rhetoric, how do parents, students, educators and advocates begin to inject some restraint back into the school disciplinary process? In fact, there is a growing movement against the practice of mindless cracking down in schools. Across the country, groups are becoming more vocal, organized and informed on this issue.

In March, the American Bar Association released a statement opposing zero tolerance, calling it a "one size fits all solution to all the problems that schools confront. It has redefined students as criminals, with unfortunate consequences." In New Jersey, outraged parents of the 50 suspended children forced the school board to change its policies toward school threats. In June, a group of Boston parents and advocates managed to delay the school board's implementation of a tougher discipline code recommended by the superintendent, arguing that it would "criminalize students."

One of the most heartening stories to date is that of "Generation Y," a youth activist organization in Chicago. After conducting a survey about student discipline, leaders of this group initiated a "Right to Learn" campaign focusing on three points: 1) too many students were getting suspended for minor, nonviolent offenses; 2) zero tolerance does not address the root of the problem, and 3) zero tolerance targets and criminalizes students of color, particularly African-Americans.

The group organized a youth summit, testified before the Chicago Board of Education, and eventually met with then Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas. As a result of the meeting, Vallas agreed to direct principals not to suspend students for minor infractions; to support and fund the creation of student-led peer juries as an alternative to suspensions; to review school-by-school suspension data disaggregated by race, and to provide sensitivity training and a code of conduct for all security officers in schools.

Proposing viable alternatives to suspensions and expulsions is essential if such groups are to convince edgy officials and the public that the answer to disciplinary challenges, like overcrowding, and each new incident of school violence, does not lie in serving up sacrificial lambs on the altar of zero tolerance. Groups in San Francisco and Milwaukee, for example, are working with school officials to implement comprehensive reform plans aimed at improving disciplinary policies in those cities' schools. Both organizations advocate for wider use of "best practices" gleaned from research on effective and safe schools, increased training for teachers in classroom management skills, and stronger accountability systems to track and monitor suspension and arrest rates.

And, to the extent that fate sometimes lends a quirky, helping hand, relief may come from an unlikely source. President Bush, who has capitalized politically from his "tough on juveniles" stances, has lately found his own policies hitting home in a way he never anticipated. Caught twice trying to obtain alcohol as a minor within the span of less than a month, one of his daughters faces a possible 180 days in jail if she is arrested a third time.

Possession of alcohol by a minor was once an offense that carried only fines as punishment. But then it was swept into the zero tolerance movement, courtesy of a bill signed into law by then Texas Gov. Bush. Perhaps he will now develop a more "nuanced" view of these policies.

For the moment, however, zero tolerance remains a politically potent "quick fix" for legislators and officials who are afraid, unable or unwilling to tackle the thornier, more complicated issues raised by alienated and isolated teenagers inadequately served by their communities and school systems. In addition to Mississippi's new three strikes law, Arizona recently passed a statute allowing prosecutors to charge students for making school-based "threats." As a result, more than 200 students have been referred for possible felony charges in what many have criticized as a very heavy-handed enforcement of the law.

Massachusetts is currently considering a new bill that will allow school districts to make alternative placements for students who are not only disruptive, but who are "at risk of school failure, truancy, or dropping out of school." As presently written, this bill opens the door for administrators to remove students from their school for the "crime" of performing poorly on the state's new all-important high stakes test. A similar measure was recently passed by the Illinois Legislature.

Michael Males, senior researcher for the Justice Policy Institute, has offered a blunt interpretation for these actions: "Ignoring the fact that teenagers are getting less, not more, violent, legislators have passed a raft of punitive and ineffectual laws clamping down ever more tightly on youth. They can't seem to do anything that would really help ... So they decide to do something, even if it's stupid."

Upon her release on bail, the National Merit scholar jailed and banned from her graduation for leaving a kitchen knife in her car commented, "They're taking away my memories." Indeed, for all of the pious talk about the need for "consequences" for students' actions, officials justifying these excesses seem curiously oblivious to the long-term impact of taking away the memories, dreams and futures of a generation of students.

At some point, they will be forced to end the charade and take a more serious look at the real need to change the climate and culture of our public schools. But that will be cold comfort to the millions of children who have been hit hard by these arbitrary policies, shamelessly justified in the name of school safety.

By Johanna Wald

Johanna Wald is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Dedham, Massachusetts. Her articles, and essays have been published in The Nation, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, Inmotion Magazine, and Preschoolers Today.

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