Bleeding Through the Band-Aid of Zero Tolerance

Louise Wetherbee Phelps Lower Division Award Winner

by Jocelyn L. Smith

From the writer: Initially, I did not plan to focus on zero tolerance policies for violence. However, while researching, I stumbled across a story involving such policies and became intrigued. Before I realized it, I had more information on zero tolerance policies than on the previous topic! It is a more involved and controversial issue than I had ever imagined.

From the teacher, Molly Voorheis: "Bleeding Through the Band Aid of Zero Tolerance" was written in response to a WRT 105 argumentative essay topic. During several in-class discussions on education-related topics, school violence, especially the Columbine shootings, took center stage. Jocelyn moved beyond the immediate and emotional response to school violence to look more thoughtfully at the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies. Her essay took many of us by surprise and, I believe, resulted in many class members’ changing their positions on such policies.

From the editor, Jen Wray: The writer does a good job of presenting both sides of the coin with the issue of zero-tolerance. Using examples to express her point helps the reader see an image of what is going on within our schools and that it’s something that needs to be addressed. I was deeply intrigued by this piece of writing, as I was a student during the time the events occurred. Those events prompted the zero-tolerance act. This argumentative paper pulled me in because I have seen first hand what the students are like and how zero-tolerance is a key issue in today’s schools.

  It was a typical day at Ponchatoula School in 2001. Lunchtime had arrived and a line of squirming, bulging bodies waited impatiently for their food. A 12 year old boy, diagnosed with hyperactivity, stuck at the back of the line, called up to his classmates, warning them, "I’m gonna get you if you eat the last of the potatoes." Perhaps some children giggled at his overreaction. However, the administration did not find humor in the situation. They incarcerated him for two weeks while he awaited a trial. Such threatening statements as his were outlawed under the school’s zero tolerance policy (Tebo).

  A similar situation occurred at Santee High School near San Diego California. Charles Andrew Williams, a 15-year-old student, reportedly told comrades he wished he could kill some of his classmates. They thought he was joking and perhaps they even sympathized with the boy, who was constantly mocked by other students. Maybe they even laughed, just as the children in the cafeteria line at Ponchatoula did. What was the difference? Charles was not joking. On March 5, 2001, he pulled a gun from his backpack, and opened fire on classmates, killing two, and wounding thirteen students (Libaw ). Both cases began with a child threatening classmates with violence, but one ended tragically. However, was the harsh reaction of the Ponchatoula administration warranted or was it stimulated by the unsubstantiated fear that school violence is spinning out of control? Schools across the United States have adopted zero tolerance policies since the Columbine Massacre in 1999 in order to "comply with state law and to impose swift, certain, and severe disciplinary action on students who endanger the learning environments (Skiba & Peterson).

  Zero tolerance was first introduced in the Gun Free School Act of 1994. This act, implemented by President Bill Clinton, requires that:
  No assistance may be provided to any local educational agency under this Act unless such an agency has in effect a policy requiring expulsion from school for a period of not less than one year of any student who is determined to have brought a weapon to a school. (qtd. in Skiba & Peterson)

  Similar policies have been adopted by schools to handle other problems, including drugs, alcohol, terrorism, and harassment as well as violence.

  In fact, a major reason for the swelling popularity of zero tolerance policies is the alleged increase in school violence and corresponding demand for superior school security. Wider media coverage of school shootings, such as the Columbine Massacre, created the illusion that violence was on the rise in schools. Parents, teachers, and students sought a sense of security. Zero tolerance measures became a visible way to demonstrate that schools were actively pursuing school safety.

  Nevertheless, the fear that school violence is escalating is unfounded. According to the US Department of Education, school violence has actually been on the decline since 1990. Some sources say that it has decreased as much as 30% (Tebo). In fact, a child is three times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed violently at school (Tebo). Meanwhile, zero tolerance policies are doing more harm than good. They show no evidence of improving the physical safety of students and may undermine the emotional security of students as well as unfairly depriving them of the right to an education.

  While zero tolerance policies are falsely putting minds at ease, children are dealing with the detrimental effects of the policy. Zero tolerance policies do not account for the weight of the offense, but treat all violations as equal. More often than not, students are suspended or expelled from school for minor offenses. Many claim that zero tolerance policies punish both minor and major violations equally.

  As a matter of fact, cases of students suspended or expelled for minor offenses inundate the media. The case of eighteen-year old Dana Heitner is one among many such stories. A straight-A student, Dana was the leading candidate for valedictorian of Madeira High School’s class of 2001. In the fall of 2000, he designed and posted signs promoting his girlfriend’s candidacy for student council. Spoofing the famous movie Speed, one of Dana’s signs read:

   There is a bomb in this receptacle. If the weight on this seat goes over 50 pounds, the bomb will be activated. Once activated, this receptacle will blow up if the weight put on it ever goes below 50 pounds. The only way to get off this seat is to scream as loud as you can that you will vote for Robin Cox in the coming election and then deposit one billion dollars in the nearest mail container with a hole in the bottom that connects to a not yet completed underground subway.

  The superintendent admitted to knowing that the sign was not an actual threat. "When school officials learned that the poster was made by Heitner, they knew that no genuine threat was intended," admitted Michele Hummel, the superintendent of Madeira City. Yet, both he and his girlfriend were served with mandatory suspension and were not allowed to make up missed work, as detailed by Madeira’s zero-tolerance policy. Consequently, Dana missed a test in calculus and received a D in the class, blowing his chances to finish first in the class. "Under state law, every district in Ohio is required to have a zero-tolerance policy and employ it without exception," Hummel explained the unyielding response to Heitner’s case (Tebo).

  Students committing minor offenses, such as Dana’s, are more likely to be disciplined under zero tolerance policies than students that commit major offenses. Therefore, students punished under zero tolerance policies most often face charges that do not fit with the violation.

  Ron Rissler, legal coordinator for the Rutherford Institute (a group dedicated to the defense of civil liberties and human rights) commented, "It is this paranoia, without looking at intent, that is denying them (unjustly suspended students) of the constitutional right to an education, and we believe wrongfully doing " (Skiba & Peterson).

  Suspension, a common punishment for zero tolerance violators, is a short-sighted method of decreasing violence. While short-term dictatorship grants teachers temporary control, it undermines long-term respect and trust between students and teachers. Diane Fener, a private lawyer from Virginia that represents children, explained, "Kids are not going to respect teachers and administrators who cannot appreciate the difference between a plastic knife and a switchblade" (Tebo). Bernardine Dohrn, director of the Children and Family agrees, "Schools are confusing equal treatment with equitable treatment. Kids in middle school and high school care most about fairness. When they see two students whose ‘offenses’ are vastly different being treated exactly the same, that sense of fairness is obliterated and replaced with fear and alienation" (Skiba & Peterson).

  "The practice of these harsh policies teaches authoritarianism as opposed to democracy. Students graduate with a flawed sense of justice. Zero tolerance does away with the entire concept of innocent until proven guilty," asserted Catherine Krebs, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center in Boston(Tebo). Democratic principles, central to our political system, are not used in our public schools, the primary place where our youth go to learn scholastics as well as to become contributing citizens. What must this authoritarian rule be teaching them about the way the world is run?

  Furthermore, injustice extends beyond cases of paranoia. Zero Tolerance unfairly targets African-American students. Administrators claim that zero tolerance methods are non-discriminatory across the board and establish clear and specific consequences. The data suggests otherwise. The Children’s Defense Fund listed rates of suspension of African-American students as two to three times greater than those of White students. A report written by the Advancement Project and the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, entitled "Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies," disclosed that African-Americans make up only 17% of the student population, but represent 33% of the out-of-school suspensions. Yet, perhaps these high numbers can be explained by socioeconomic status. Those students living in worse conditions would tend to be more violent, and thus the statistics would be justified. However, an additional study by Harvard discards this explanation, showing that rates of suspension for non-whites were higher even after controlling for socioeconomic status. Furthermore, the differences in rates of misbehavior between white and nonwhite students are not sufficient to account for the gap (Skiba & Peterson). The best explanation for these variations seems to be that the system is prejudiced.

  Not only are zero tolerance policies ineffective and unjust, but studies also suggested that these policies may actually speed juveniles down the path to delinquency. Suspension from school has consistently been found to be "a moderate to strong predicator of school dropout" (Skiba & Peterson). Greater than 30% of sophomores who dropped out had been suspended, a "High School And Beyond Study" revealed (Skiba & Peterson). That is a rate three times that of peers who stayed in school, suggesting a correlation between dropout and school exclusionary strategies. Skiba, an associate professor at Indiana University, warns that by the time a student reaches high school, suspension will not likely impact behavior, but it will "accelerate the course of delinquency by providing a troubled youth with little parental supervision and a few extra days with deviant peers."

  The social inadequacy of zero tolerance and its failure to make a significant impact on violence levels in the schools suggests that alternate philosophies are more effective. The American Bar Association website suggested that perhaps schools were implementing zero tolerance policies in order to avoid expensive counseling services. Educators argue for zero tolerance, claiming that the social problems students bring with them to school already are overwhelming. The responsibility to determine which incidents pose threats and which do not are beyond their capabilities (Tebo). The article also pointed out that most shooters demonstrated warning signs of mental illness and/or social inadequacy long before their crimes, but rarely received any counseling.

  Numerous methods besides counseling can help to prevent school violence, without the use of zero tolerance policies. Skiba says that these methods may be conceptualized as early response versus zero tolerance methods. They aim to address the psyche that leads to violent outbursts before it ascends to a dangerous level.

  One method is social instruction or conflict resolution. Students are taught alternative methods for resolving conflict. In 1996, Johnson and Johnson reported that "conflict resolution and peer mediation have demonstrated some success in reducing school suspension and in improving school climate" (Skiba & Peterson).

  Inadequate preparation of teachers for dealing with conflict and disruption in the classroom has contributed to school violence. Teachers act as the first line of defense, dealing with the smaller offenses. A relationship clearly exists between low-level school disruption and serious school violence, a report by the National Center for Educational Statistics revealed. Of schools that listed at least one serious discipline issue, 28% also reported at least one minor crime. Contrastingly, of schools that did not report incidences of major violence, only 3% reported the presence of crime (Skiba & Peterson). Therefore, if teachers were better prepared to deal with and discourage the small infractions, then the major offenses would become less likely.

  A final method to combat school violence is to watch for early warning signs given off by troubled students and to help, rather than segregate or profile, the students suffering. It is important that behavioral support be provided before small outbursts escalate into serious violence (Skiba & Peterson). This tactic may not be simple. Often troubled students confess to other students and the information never reaches the ears of administrators. Parents also are in a good position to detect indicators of social and psychological problems. Perhaps if the lines of communication were to remain open among students, parents, teachers, and administrators, the problem of school violence could be minimized and the educational environment could be maximized.

  Currently many schools are less interested in communication than in ridding classrooms of troublesome students. In one principal’s words, "We don’t want to understand these kids; we want to get them out" (Skiba & Peterson). Such sentiments spring from the same philosophy as zero tolerance policies, overlooking the primary objective of schools: to educate. By implementing programs that build positive social behavior rather than ones that ineffectively punish inappropriate behavior, schools can not only avoid unfairly depriving children of an education, but they can enrich the quality of the education available.

Works Cited

Libaw, Oliver Yates. "Standing up to Bullying: Educators Take Student Harrassment Problems More Seriously" 7 Mar. 2001: 23 paras. 19 Nov. 2001

"Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies." Report by the Advancement Project and the Civil Rights Project. June 2000. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. 10 Nov. 2001

Skiba, Russell, and Reece Peterson. "School Discipline at the Crossroads: From Zero Tolerance to Early Response." Exceptional Children 66.3(2000): 335-46.

Tebo, Margaret Graham. "Zero Tolerance, Zero Sense." American Bar Association Journal. Located at May 2000. 10 Nov. 2001.

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