106th Congress, February 2000
Public policy towards children has moved towards treating them more like adults and in ways that increasingly mimic the adult criminal justice system. The most recent version of this movement is so-called "zero tolerance" in schools, where theories of punishment that were once directed to adult criminals are now applied to first graders.1
"Zero tolerance" is the phrase that describes America's response to student misbehavior. Zero tolerance means that a school will automatically and severely punish a student for a variety of infractions. While zero tolerance began as a Congressional response to students with guns, gun cases are the smallest category of school discipline cases. Indeed, zero tolerance covers the gamut of student misbehavior, from including "threats" in student fiction to giving aspirin to a classmate. Zero tolerance has become a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools confront. It has redefined students as criminals, with unfortunate consequences.
While zero tolerance policies target the serious risk of students bringing guns to school, they also go after other weapons or anything, like a Swiss Army knife, that can be used as a weapon. Zero tolerance responds to student violence (covering a wide range of activities) or threats of violence. Zero tolerance is theoretically directed at students who misbehave intentionally, yet it also applies to those who misbehave as a result of emotional problems, or other disabilities, or who merely forget what is in their pocket after legitimate non-school activities. It treats alike first graders and twelfth graders.
Zero tolerance results in expulsion or suspension irrespective of any legitimate explanation. In many instances it also results in having the student arrested.
As reported in the April, 2000 American Bar Association Journal:
Nationwide, statistics gathered by the Justice Policy Institute and the U.S. Department of Education show that crime of all sorts is down at public schools since 1990, some studies say by as much as 30 percent. Less than 1 percent of all violent incidents involving adolescents occur on school grounds. Indeed, a child is three times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed violently at school. Still, fueled by media hype, fear of the unthinkable and perhaps even a bit of guilt, more parents are demanding that school boards implement strict policies to deal with kids who step out of line.
So-called zero tolerance policies being implemented across the country are snaring large numbers of regular kids in broad nets designed to fish for troublemakers.2
The nets are indeed broad. In a report issued in the spring of 2000 by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington and the Kentucky-based Children's Law Center:
- A seventeen-year-old junior shot a paper clip with a rubber band at a classmate, missed, and broke the skin of a cafeteria worker. The student was expelled from school. - A nine-year-old on the way to school found a manicure kit with a 1-inch knife. The student was suspended for one day.
The report notes that many of these children are also referred to juvenile court:
- In Ponchatoula Louisiana, a 12-year-old who had been diagnosed with a hyperactive disorder warned the kids in the...