Zero Tolerance or Just Zero Patience?

Zero Tolerance or Just Zero Patience?

January 6, 2012 | Michelle Ghafar, Zainab Khan, and Christopher Hartney, Senior Researcher, NCCD

At Spotsylvania High School in Virginia, a plastic ball spit through a straw during lunch period resulted in three misdemeanor assault charges and expulsion. The Washington Post reported that a deputy sheriff was called to the scene. The “offending” student will be cleared of the charges only after a year-long diversion program[1]. The student was suspended under the pretext of protecting his schoolmates, but does banishing students from school for such minor offenses really help them, or make schools or communities safer?

At Spotsylvania High School in Virginia, a plastic ball spit through a straw during lunch period resulted in three misdemeanor assault charges and expulsion. The Washington Post reported that a deputy sheriff was called to the scene. The “offending” student will be cleared of the charges only after a year-long diversion program[1]. The student was suspended under the pretext of protecting his schoolmates, but does banishing students from school for such minor offenses really help them, or make schools or communities safer?

Real behavioral issues at school can be disruptive and dangerous and, of course, require an appropriate response by school officials. On the other hand, overreaction to relatively minor behavioral problems can have a severe and lasting impact on the youth involved.

Behavior that was once considered typical for adolescents and was dealt with by parents and schools is now considered serious crime and dealt with by the police, courts and jails. “Zero tolerance” discipline policies, often mandated by federal or state law, automatically impose severe punishment for certain behaviors. However, applying these laws is usually up to school officials and, as in the case at Spotsylvania High, restrictive and subjective standards can fuel criminalization. A national study focusing on teen violence found that while the actual incidence of violent youth crime has fallen over most of the past decade, the number of youth referred to police has increased, especially in the case of girls[2]. Rather than behaviors getting worse, policies and definitions are changing and becoming increasingly rigid, resulting in more arrests and, for incidents on campus, more suspensions and expulsions.

This prioritization of incarceration over education creates a “school-to-prison pipeline” that pushes students, especially those most at risk, out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Upon being expelled, perhaps for something as intolerable as bringing nail clippers to school, children are often left unsupervised without constructive activities. They may be subject to inferior educational settings in mandated alternative schools that are designed for students with serious behavioral problems and often lack appropriate special education services and counselors. These students can fall behind on their coursework, become disengaged and drop out, and are likely to have further court involvement, both as juveniles and adults. Students not involved can suffer negative consequences as well. According to the Advancement Project and Youth United for Change, schools with high suspension and arrest rates are also more likely to be characterized by low graduation rates and achievement levels[3].

Regardless of how they got there—from shooting spitballs or from committing serious crimes—youth in the juvenile justice system face an obstacle course of barriers to their reentry into traditional schools. It is critical to understand that little more than juvenile mischief or immaturity can haunt a child for the rest of his/her life, potentially robbing him/her of an education and its corresponding opportunities. Studies show that youths placed in detention facilities are 4.5 times more likely to recidivate than those placed in alternate programs—even after controlling for offense[4]. When one considers that children are expected to make this reverse journey up the pipeline from jail to school, the troubling ramifications of zero tolerance become clear. Ultimately, law enforcement should only be involved in serious cases, and school authorities should demand and use more flexibility in handling minor infractions.