How Zero-Tolerance Policies Hurt Kids

Harshly punishing students for ridiculously minor infractions has become the norm in America.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Before there was Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old terrorist (read: nerd) who was arrested for bringing an explosive device (read: clock) to a Texas high school, there was Joshua, the 7-year-old Napoleon of Crime who was suspended from his Maryland elementary school for chewing his Pop-Tart into a gun and pointing it at fellow students.

Before Joshua there was Patrick Agin, a Rhode Island high school senior and member in good standing of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who had to sue his school to allow a yearbook picture of him dressed in chain-mail armor and carrying a broadsword. And long before Patrick Agin rode in bureaucratic battle, there was the curious case of the unnamed eighth-grader we’ll call “Midol Mary.” She got booted from her school in Washington state for the unforgiveable crime of giving a non-prescription pain-relief pill to a classmate suffering menstrual cramps.

Listing the undeserving victims of zero-tolerance policies in public K-12 schools yields a genealogy as long, confusing, and endlessly multiplying as any found in the Old Testament or a late-run episode of Honey Boo-Boo. And why this is so and whether the benefits outweigh the costs are questions well worth asking.

According to Department of Education statistics, one out of five students will be suspended in a given year and another 3.4 percent will be expelled. In some states, such as Texas, over half of all students were suspended or expelled at least once during their middle-school and high school years. There is unanimous agreement that students who are thus disciplined are far more likely to not graduate high school.

Why the list of disciplined, suspended, and expelled kids approaches infinity isn’t a mystery. About 75 percent of schools have zero-tolerance policies for everything from bringing guns on campus to sharing cough drops to having a bad attitude toward teachers. Kids have been bounced temporarily or permanently for bringing mouthwash to school, using paper or plastic swords in Halloween costumes, writing violent short stories, and having a pen knife with a two-inch blade in a survival kit locked away in a car parked on school grounds.

The concept of “zero tolerance”—of not allowing any level of a given substance or behavior—originated in criminology and food and drug regulations before migrating to education. In the 1960s, the Food and Drug Administration announced that certain compounds were unsafe in any concentration and wrote rules to force manufacturers to banish them from their products. In the 1970s and ’80s, academics such as James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling promulgated “broken windows” theories of social order, which emphasized policing even minimal signs of lawlessness such as littering and turnstile-jumping as a way to prevent more serious problems from developing.

Throughout the modern “War on Drugs,” which was declared by Richard Nixon in 1971, politicians, law enforcement, and advocacy groups have pursued ever-more exacting standards of prohibition and control of both illegal and legal drugs. For instance, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which spearheaded the campaign in the 1980s to hold drunk drivers accountable for their behavior, now lobbies to continuously lower the legal blood-alcohol content so that it approaches zero.

Schools began implementing zero-tolerance policies, mostly in relation to drug possession, in the late 1980s, according to Russell J. Skiba in a study for the Indiana Education Policy Center. But it was the Gun-Free Schools Zone Act of 1994 that supercharged the trend by tying federal education funds to passing specific new laws.

“The law mandates a one year calendar expulsion for possession of a firearm, referral of law-violating students to the criminal or juvenile justice system, and the provision that state law must authorize the chief administrative officer of each local school district to modify such expulsions on a case-by-case basis,” wrote Skiba in 2000.

Almost immediately, federal and state legislators expanded the scope of both law and practice to include an ever-growing list of objects and behaviors under zero-tolerance diktat. The Columbine High School shooting in 1999 cemented such trends in place, despite later revelations showing that virtually every known aspect of the killers’ motivations, from their supposed love of violent video games to their being bullied, was completely incorrect.

Traditional schools have never been known for their celebration or nurturing of the human spirit. Indeed, decades—even centuries!—of novels, plays, movies, songs, and other forms of creative expression attest to the stultifying effect of conventional pedagogy based on a factory model borne of the Industrial Revolution. In this sense, zero-tolerance policies are nothing new. They are simply the latest way in which schools always prize order over education.

And this much seems certain: “The research findings and other data on zero tolerance suggest that these policies—which have been in force for 25 years—have no real benefit and significant adverse effects.” That’s from a 2013 study published by the Vera Institute of Justice, which also notes that “only five percent of serious disciplinary actions nationally in recent years involve possession of a weapon.”

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Schools are not safer, or more educational, because of zero-tolerance policies. They are just more arbitrary, and tougher for boys and minorities to navigate. An exhaustive study of Texas middle- and high schools found that white boys were about twice as likely to get in trouble than white girls—and that black and Hispanic boys were about 50 percent more likely to get in trouble than their white counterparts.

Here is the sad truth: The ridiculous cases filling the newspapers of kids chewing breakfast into gun-shaped pastries or giving an aspirin to a friend aren’t the exception, but the rule. In practice, zero-tolerance policies are aimed at all sorts of petty, often-arbitrary annoyances that get under the skin of individual school administrators.

We spend over $12,000 a year per pupil in the nation’s public K-12 system, an amount that equals tuition at most flagship state universities. Since the early 1970s, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending has more than doubled yet the scores of graduating seniors haven’t budged upwards. We tell ourselves that we send our kids to school to learn how to think in a critical, sophisticated, nuanced way and they encounter instead a system that is arbitrary, harsh, and ineffective at teaching.

That teaches kids a lesson about the world, but it’s well short of the education they deserve.