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Volume 16, Number 1
January/February 2000

The Pros and Cons of Zero Tolerance


Charles Patrick Ewing of SUNY-Buffalo and Joan First of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students take different sides on harsh measures.

Protection for Whom? At What Price?
By Joan First

Zero Tolerance Protects Students
By Charles Patrick Ewing

Protection for Whom? At What Price?

By Joan First

The school reform movement is rife with unanticipated consequences. Zero Tolerance school discipline policies are a prime example. In 1994, to bolster school safety and ensure orderly learning environments, Congress passed the Gun Free School Act which require states that receive federal funds to mandate expulsion from school for at least one year for any student who brings a weapon to school.

Soon startling stories about the irrational removal of students from public schools began to appear:

  • A little boy kisses a girl on the cheek. Although this is developmentally appropriate behavior for a five year old, he is suspended from school.
  • A Florida 1st grader who recently witnessed street violence panics when a uniformed "Officer Friendly" enters her classroom. The frightened girl tries to run away and a teacher restrains her. The child strikes the teacher. The girl is taken to a police station until her parents arrive.
  • A male high school student learns that a suicidal friend has a weapon. He persuades her to give it to him. When he hands it to school authorities, he is expelled.

Is this what Congress had in mind? I don't think so. The sound idea that guns don't belong in schools has gone awry. Student intent no longer matters, and harmless pranks are now crimes. As Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman recently wrote: " Zero Tolerance for misbehavior evolved into Zero Tolerance for kids themselves.... We are in a time of general crackdown—a tough love without the love."

Expulsion is particularly destructive because many schools lack alternative programs, and those that do exist often offer inferior instruction. The respected newsletter Catalyst: Voices of Chicago School Reform reports that expulsions from Chicago public schools rose from 21 in 1994-95 to 668 in 1997-98. Paradoxically, alternative school seats dwindled from 582 in 1997-98 to 350 in 1999-2000.

In addition, an estimated 700 students over age 16 with 20 days of unexcused absence were dropped from district rolls. These students cannot return to a regular Chicago high school. Orr High School administrator David Meegan told Catalyst, "What we have found is that those kids who are missing 20 days are the ones that drag your test scores down.... We want quality more than quantity. If that means removing dead weight, then we will remove dead weight."

U.S. schools have always excluded many students for disciplinary reasons. And data reveal that school exclusion is consistently about race. U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) data show that, during the 1976-77 school year, 15 percent of all U.S. public school students were black and 75 percent were white. Yet blacks received 30 percent of suspensions and expulsions, while whites received just 64 percent. By 1997-98, 17 percent of the public school students were black and 64 percent were white, but blacks received 32 percent of suspensions, whites just 51 percent. In the interim, OCR had stopped collecting expulsion data. However, partly in response to the Zero Tolerance movement, OCR resumed collecting it in 1998. These data will be released this spring and are expected to document increased racial disparity.

A 1999 report by the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan (SAC) backs this prediction. In 17 Michigan school districts surveyed, the average African American population is 39.8 percent, while African American students account for 64 percent of expulsions. Reflecting upon 100 expulsion cases SAC handled in 1999, Executive Director Ruth Zweifler notes, "We have chosen as a society to identify every child as potentially dangerous. This is destructive to the children and to our national future. [Zero Tolerance] punishes children who are often frightened, sometimes thoughtless, rarely dangerous, but now clearly endangered."

Although school crime rates declined sharply between 1993 and 1997, the number of multiple homicides in schools increased from one event in 1994-95 to five in 1997-98, according to the 1999 Annual Report on School Safety of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. That suggests a continued need for laws that keep guns out of the hands of children. These should be accompanied by state and local school codes that describe types of student misbehavior, categorize them by severity, and provide for appropriate consequences.

Most of all, schools need a return to wise adult decisionmaking. I am haunted by the case of the student who was expelled for helping his suicidal friend, and by his mother who said, "I am proud of him. He did everything right." Why couldn't the adults at school see that? What was missing? A teacher who knew him. A caring adult who, once the gun was safely secured, said, "Tell me what happened." An adult who listened and concluded, "Thank goodness you were there! Don't worry. We will see that your friend gets help." In short, an adult who saw something of his or her own son in this young man, rather than an instant enemy and a likely killer.

Our schools desperately need adults who are willing to talk with students. Otherwise, intolerable burdens are placed upon children. Surely we have ample data to conclude that adults who "check out" of teaching children about justice and compassion encourage the very kind of behavior they seek to end.

Joan M. First is executive director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students (NCAS) and author of several publications on school reform and related issues, including The Good Common School: Making the Vision Work for All Children and New Voices: Immigrant Students in U.S. Public Schools. She has been a university-based school desegregation specialist, an education reporter for daily newspapers, and editor of a preschool education journal.
Sensible Zero Tolerance Protects Students
By Charles Patrick Ewing

In recent years, approximately one out of every 200 American children has been the victim of a serious or potentially serious crime of violence at school. While the vast majority of these incidents have involved physical assaults without a weapon, 10 percent of all public schools have experienced one or more serious violent crimes, including murder, rape, sexual battery, or assault with a weapon. At the same time, a growing number of teachers and other school officials have been threatened or assaulted, and many schools have been besieged with bomb threats and other attempts to disrupt educational activity.

In an effort to stem this rising tide of school violence, many school districts have implemented Zero Tolerance policies. These policies vary widely, but most are based on the principle that violence or even a threat of violence has no place whatsoever in schools and will not be tolerated in any form. Under such policies, students who threaten or commit acts of violence have been punished, often suspended from school, and sometimes expelled. In a small percentage of these cases, school-based sanctions have been followed by juvenile or criminal court prosecutions.

Are Zero Tolerance policies in U.S. schools knee-jerk reactions to the recent high-profile school shootings or useful tools in the broader effort to prevent school violence? The answer depends on what is meant by Zero Tolerance.

Critics point to a handful of cases in which Zero Tolerance has led to absurd results, including elementary school children suspended for carrying nail clippers or bringing plastic knives to school to cut the fruit in their lunches. If this is what is meant by Zero Tolerance, the critics are right; some schools have wildly overreacted.

But what about the more common applications of Zero Tolerance? An elementary school student carries a loaded gun to school, shows it to a friend, and then turns it over to a teacher. A middle school student brags to peers about having a gun in his locker and planning to use it at school; school officials search the locker and find no weapon. A high school student punches a classmate in the face. Another student passes a note containing reference to killing the school's principal; a teacher intercepts the note, and the student explains that he was "just joking."

Under most Zero Tolerance policies, each of these students would be suspended from school. Any further action against them would likely depend on the facts of the case, including any mitigating evidence. In my view, having spent more than two decades researching juvenile violence and evaluating its perpetrators, this is the right approach.

Sensible application of a Zero Tolerance policy in all schools is warranted for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the need to at least temporarily separate a dangerous or potentially dangerous student from the rest of the school population. Where a student has acted in a violent manner, as in assaulting another or carrying a truly dangerous weapon to school, removal of the offender from the school setting is necessary for the physical protection of other students. An assessment of the offending student, the reasons for the infraction, and the need for additional sanctions, if any, should be undertaken, but only after this concern for the safety of other students is given paramount importance.

Beyond immediate safety concerns, however, this application of Zero Tolerance appropriately denounces violent student behavior in no uncertain terms and serves as a deterrent to such behavior in the future by sending a clear message that acts which physically harm or endanger others will not be permitted at school under any circumstances.

More difficult is the application of Zero Tolerance to cases in which violence has been threatened but not carried out. Here, as well, both safety and deterrence warrant at least a brief suspension from school, with any additional action to be determined later. While the vast majority of student threats prove to be idle, in virtually all jurisdictions even threatening to harm another person is a crime. Beyond the law, however, common sense dictates that all student threats must be taken seriously and investigated so as to protect the safety of others in the school environment. Suspending a threatening student provides school and law enforcement authorities the time to conduct a thorough assessment of the threat and to make an informed decision regarding the needs of the school and community, as well as those of the threatening student.

Finally, as for the so-called "joking" threats that are also raised by some critics of Zero Tolerance, it should first be noted that it is often not easy to determine whether a student is joking or serious when making a threat. School officials who attempt to make that distinction do so at their own risk, as well as the risk of others. Airline passengers have long had to accept the fact that they cannot even joke about violence when passing through airport security. The same should be true of students, for in both cases the stakes are too high to require officials to quickly guess who is serious and who is not. I believe that even where it appears likely that a student's threat has been made in jest, at least a brief suspension from school is warranted in order to teach that violence is no joking matter.

Charles Patrick Ewing is professor of law and psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he has taught criminal law, evidence, juvenile law, and psychology, psychiatry and law since 1983. Dr. Ewing is the author of five books, including When Children Kill: The Dynamics of Juvenile Homicide. He is also senior editor of the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law.

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