No Tolerance for Zero-Tolerance Policies
Across the United States, you will find that the practice of zero tolerance policies is commonplace in most public schools. A zero tolerance policy is defined as “ a policy of very strict, uncompromising, enforcement of rules or laws”, and when it comes to public schools this means that students will be given detention or suspended if found to have broken a rule the school has a zero-tolerance policy on. Due to America’s obsessive implementation of these policies we have created an attitude of hostility in public schools. Schools with an increased police presence on campus create an environment that transforms students into criminals if they make a mistake. Zero tolerance policies do not work; the only think children are learning from them is that the school and their teachers have given up on them. We need to stop the use of zero tolerance policies in schools and create a better system of discipline that will actually help our students. We can do this by demanding change within our public schools and supporting legislation that moves to rethink or ban zero tolerance policies.
Zero tolerance policies have existed for quite a while in the United States Education System, they have not been given mass media attention until the last few years. Zero Tolerance Policies first gained popularity in the 1980’s when public schools were attempting to combat drug and alcohol use by students. Back then the use of these policies was clearly outlined, students found in possession or under the influence of drugs or alcohol during school hours would/could face suspension or expulsion. However, it was not until after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 that the Federal government stepped in and passed legislation to create the first government mandated zero tolerance policy banning any type of gun in or around school grounds. The law states that possession of such a weapon would constitute immediate expulsion, leaving no room for hearing a student’s side of the story.
While it is completely understandable as to why the United States passed such a law, for extreme situations and actions like bringing a weapon on school grounds you need to have punishments to match it. However, this law leaves absolutely no grey area. There is no room for debate, explanation, or even empathy from school administrators. They have their hands ties, the law says that the student must be expelled. And now that child has a criminal record, for something that might have been a simple mistake or accident.
Since then the amount of behaviors punishable by zero tolerance policies has increased dramatically. Students can now be suspended or expelled for “willful defiance” of their teachers, possession of “drugs” like ibuprofen, and accidental possession of small weapons like a pocketknife. While these policies are in effect to ideally prevent the possession of actually harmful narcotics and dangerous weapons, their strict enforcement has left no grey area for honest mistakes made by children and teenagers.
If you are a parent, student, or educator you need to care about this issue. This is a much bigger problem than students getting suspended when they should be getting a detention. The implementation of zero tolerance policies has left a disgustingly large amount of students with criminal records before they turn eighteen. As shocking as that sounds, it is true. A study released in 2011 by the Texas based nonprofit called the justice center quotes that six in ten public school students have been suspended or expelled at least once between seventh and twelfth grade. How is it that sixty percent of students can face discipline like this, yet we still assume that it is the student’s fault? As the New York Time’s wrote about the release of this study, “Only a tiny fraction of the disciplinary actions taken against students were for serious criminal conduct requiring suspension or expulsion under state law.”, which means that most of those students that were suspended happened for minor misbehaviors. We need to start understanding the effects that these policies are having on our students.
Zero tolerance policies have created an environment in schools where armed police presence is seen as a necessity. The responsibility of deciding how to discipline students is now being handled by officers instead of their school principals. This creates a situation where students find themselves being charged with crimes rather than given productive discipline that would help them understand their mistakes.
Schools should take the opportunity of mistakes as a teaching moment, to help their students learn how to make better choices. However, the implementation of zero-tolerance policies does the exact opposite. The second a student makes a mistake they are suspended or given detention. According to the ACLU, “Rates of suspension have increased dramatically in recent years — from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000.”
Treating students like this makes them believe that they are only capable of messing up and becoming the criminal they are treated as. They begin to see staying in school as unrealistic. According to the ACLU, “Overly harsh disciplinary policies push students down the pipeline and into the juvenile justice system. Suspended and expelled children are often left unsupervised and without constructive activities; they also can easily fall behind in their coursework, leading to a greater likelihood of disengagement and drop-outs. All of these factors increase the likelihood of court involvement.”
The biggest solution to this issue is to do away with zero-tolerance policies and possibly decrease police presence on school campuses. Some states are currently introducing and passing bills that would take away zero tolerance policies and I believe the rest of the country should follow their example. An Ohio senator, Charleta Tavares, has spoken out about the issue when introducing a bill, saying “Children are coming into the school with multiple traumas, they are acting out because they do not know how to handle it.” Her bill would call for a system in which school administrators to review each student’s personal circumstances before deciding on disciplinary action.
Senator Tavares’s initiative is exactly what the American public school system needs when it comes to disciplinary reform. In January 2014 the New York Times published a short article Zero Tolerance, Reconsidered, which examined how various states were trying to handle how to get rid of these policies. In Texas legislation was introduced that would alter zero tolerance policies for younger students, banning the practice of legally writing up and fining students under the age of twelve by actual law enforcement. The bill also aims to change school’s overuse of suspension by implementing a system of “warning letter” sent home to the children’s parents or counseling to get to the root of each student’s misbehavior.
Locally, in California lawmakers have been working for years to undo mandatory zero tolerance policies. An article I found from a local newspaper, The Mercury News, stated that “In Oakland, one out of every four black boys was suspended that year”, according to a study done in 2012 about the effects of zero tolerance policies in the bay area. While that number is high, what is even more surprising is that the study did not even take into account how many times a student had been suspended. So if a student was suspended three times in one semester, only their first suspension was recorded. As the Mercury continues to state, “ California’s public schools are required, by law, to suspend or expel kids who are caught selling drugs, brandishing a knife, possessing a firearm or explosive, or sexually assaulting someone.”. While all of those actions seem to fit their perspective punishments, there is no room in that law for explanation or debate. Those definitions are actually very broad, and without the option to offer the student counseling or parent involvement, their actions are rarely fixed by their punishments.
In 2012, Assembly Bill 2537 was introduced to the California State senate by Manuel Perez. The bill would change the state requirements for automatic expulsion or suspension. As the Mercury explains, “Firearm and explosives possession would remain grounds for an automatic suspension, but disciplinary action on the other offenses would be up to the discretion of school officials.” This bill was passed and is currently being implemented in California schools nationwide.
In 2014, the San Francisco county school district passed a measure that would ban suspension or expulsion for the act of “willful defiance” by students. This followed the example of the Los Angeles county school district, who moved to ban this category in the prior years. What should be absolutely shocking though, is that before these steps were taken, “willful defiance” made up almost 43% of student suspensions statewide. Students were having their in class time taken away from them because they were not listening to their teachers well enough, and the definition of that was left up to the teachers themselves.
The fact is that Zero tolerance policies in public schools started off as a great, well meaning idea. Just because something sounds like a good idea though, does not mean it is in practice. As we have seen in study after study, these policies are only doing more harm than good for our youth. They are not correcting bad behavior, they are simply just trying to ignore it by outcasting the student. In order to see progress and change we must demand that zero tolerance policies are done away with in our local schools. Support current legislation, write letters to your senators, school boards, and even local education administrators. If we do not speak up the problem will not get solved, and it is up to parents, students, and those in the educational field to learn and teach others about this issue.