Discipline and Punish
Zero tolerance policies have
a 'lockdown environment' in schools
by Annette Fuentes
The Nation magazine, December
Bryson Donaldson, 12, was horsing around
at his Muskogee, Oklahoma, school one morning last fall, mimicking
the cops-and-robbers scenario that is as American as apple pie
and Al Pacino. Bryson pointed his finger like a gun at a classmate
and in a flash was hit with a five-day suspension. The principal
singled out Bryson, the only African-American in his grade, for
punishment, patting him down and scanning his sixth-grader's frame
with a metal detector. He _ was placed in an alternative program
for "bad" students, serving two days of his sentence
until his mother brought in the NAACP. Bryson had been a straight-A
student, but that changed. "He has nightmares now,"
Diane Donaldson said last June. "I had to take him to a psychiatrist.
It is to the point where we have to struggle to go to school every
Daniel Brion, 14, was an eighth grader
with a bright mind, a diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder) and a typical adolescent's jubilation as summer approached
this past May. Walking down the hall of his Lexington, Kentucky,
school, Daniel remarked that he wished the school would burn down
and take the principal with it. His words were overheard and translated
to said principal thusly: Daniel had gasoline and was recruiting
a gang to burn down the school. Without notifying Daniel or his
parents, the principal brought in the police to investigate Daniel's
comments. Two weeks later, Daniel was yanked out of math class
and interrogated by an officer who read him his Miranda rights.
"The whole thing is like Franz Kafka's The Trial," said
Dr. Gail Brion, his mother. "They were ready to arrest him
on charges of terrorist threats."
Every year, more than 3 million students
like Bryson Donaldson are suspended and nearly 100,000 more are
expelled, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Of those, untold
thousands like Daniel Brion increasingly face police action for
disciplinary problems that were previously handled in school,
because forty-one states now require that certain acts committed
in school be reported to the police. Boys in general are the targets,
with African-American males bearing a disproportionate brunt of
suspensions and disciplinary actions. Together, these trends are
the poisonous byproduct of a decade of so-called zero tolerance
policies in public schools, from urban enclaves to rural outposts
Youth advocates and education experts
are increasingly alarmed about the toll of zero tolerance policies.
While school administrators may believe suspensions and get-tough
policies make schools safe and improve student behavior, the research
shows otherwise. Excluding kids from school for two days or two
months increases the odds of academic failure and dropping out.
What's more, suspensions and academic failure are strong predictors
of entry into the criminal justice system, especially for African-American
males. That's why legal and education experts are blaming zero
tolerance for what they call the "school to prison pipeline."
If yesteryear's prank got a slap on the wrist, today those wrists
could be slapped with handcuffs. "We are breeding a generation
of children who think they are criminals for the way they are
being treated in school," said Judith Browne, senior attorney
at the Advancement Project, in Washington, DC. "School used
to be a refuge. Now it's a lockdown environment. We are bringing
the practices of criminal justice into the schools."
The Zero Tolerance Juggernaut
Zero tolerance was born during the Reagan
Administration's war on drugs, back in the mid- 1 980s. But it
was Bill Clinton who gave it new currency in the schools when
he signed the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, mandating expulsion
of students who bring weapons to school. It was a time of public
hysteria about youth crime, hyped by pop criminologists like James
Q. Wilson, who predicted a violent juvenile crime wave, and John
DiIulio, who coined the term "superpredator" to describe
a new, vicious young criminal-the face of whom was implicitly
a black or Latino urban male. Racial coding and stereotypes infused
such theories and fed the public's rampant fear of young minority
males. The real dimensions of juvenile crime were far milder:
a spike in violent crime that began in the late 1980s, crested
in the early 1990s and has been falling ever since. At the time
of the infamous 1999 Columbine High School shootings, incidents
of school violence, including homicides, were at their lowest
point in a decade. But by then, fear of African-American and Latino
"ghetto gangstas" had expanded to include youth of all
demographics, whether they lived in affluent white suburbs or
poor black cities. Columbine only accelerated the zero tolerance
juggernaut already in motion.
In the four years since then, states and
localities have enacted policies in public schools that make the
federal mandates look tepid. Broadened definitions of weapons
and threatening behavior can turn a spitball into a deadly missile
and a playground pushing match into an assault. What's more, zero
tolerance is getting a boost from President Bush's No Child Left
Behind Act of 2001 and its focus on standardized-testing-as-educational-reform.
"The wave of school shootings fed [the public's] concerns
and states went wild with zero tolerance, giving principals total
discretion to kick out any student they wanted," said Mark
Soler, president of the Youth Law Center. "Now zero tolerance
is fed less by fear of crime and more by high-stakes testing.
Principals want to get rid of kids they perceive as trouble."
Daniel Brion's school is typical in Kentucky,
where zero tolerance took hold after a few incidents of school
violence in the late l 990s, like the 1997 fatal shooting at a
West Paducah high school prayer group. Yet school crime is very
low in Kentucky, says Soler. For each of the past three years,
for example, fewer than forty firearms offenses were reported
for a student population of 625,000. But suspensions have multiplied:
65,508 in the 1999-2000 school year, and 68,523 the following
year. Many of these were for "defiance of authority,"
a vaguely defined violation of school rules that was reported
more than 25,000 times in the 2000-01 school year. "Defiance
of authority is talking in class, talking back to teachers; it's
irritating behavior. You can't have kids disturbing class, but
schools have abdicated responsibility for finding a middle ground,"
said Soler. "The Kentucky data is clear. If you stop suspensions
-for minor behaviors, it would reduce the total number dramatically."
What's Race Got to Do With It?
Zero tolerance cheerleaders cite high
rates of suspension and expulsion as the reason school violence
is low. But no research supports that claim or the theory that
zero tolerance improves academic outcomes. If anything, zero tolerance
breeds failure among the most vulnerable students and puts kids
on a path to prison, according to Russell Skiba, associate professor
of education and director of the Safe and Responsive Schools Project
at Indiana University. "Students suspended in elementary
school are more likely to act out in middle school, and there
is some correlation with dropouts. If one of the potent predictors
of achievement is time spent learning, then expulsion's effect
on achievement is not surprising," said Skiba. "Even
if we say these are bad kids, zero tolerance doesn't do anything
to help them. It's placing a higher proportion of students at
risk for jail."
Skiba looked at zero tolerance policies
in thirty-seven states using data from 2000 to gauge their relationship
to achievement, behavior and youth incarceration. Schools with
high out-of-school suspension rates had lower achievement in eighth-grade
math, writing and reading. And states with higher school suspension
rates were also more likely to have higher juvenile incarceration
rates. Perhaps most sobering was the racial disparity: In almost
every state, suspension, expulsion and incarceration rates were
higher for African-Americans than for the general student population.
In Minnesota 6 percent of all students were suspended in the 2000-01
school year, while 34 percent of African-American students were.
African-American youth were more likely to be suspended and incarcerated
than white children across the country, with many states guilty
of staggering disproportion.
Southern states tend to have the highest
absolute rates of suspension and juvenile incarceration, Skiba
found, but the racial disparity is highest in the Midwest. In
Minnesota, for example, African-American youth are nine times
as likely to be suspended from school as white children and nine
times as likely to be in jail. Skiba attributes the regional differences
to the demographics and teacher quality of Midwestern urban areas,
where African-Americans are concentrated. But the overall pattern
of racial differences in school exclusion is another matter. "I'm
beginning to think of this as an unplanned conspiracy," Skiba
said. "When there is racial disparity, it reflects institutional
behaviors perpetuated over time." National statistics on
suspensions from the US Education Department for 2000 indicate
the depth of the disparity: African-American students are 17 percent
of the entire public school population but account for 34 percent
of all out-of-school suspensions and 30 percent of expulsions.
White students, by contrast, are 62 percent of the student population
but account for 48 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 49
percent of expulsions.
African-American males face a double jeopardy
with zero tolerance policies because they are often over-represented
in special education classes, where the federal Individuals With
Disabilities Education Act doesn't always protect them from punitive
discipline, according to Linda Raffaele Mendez, an associate professor
in the department of school psychology at the University of South
Florida. She looked at a thirteen-year study of school kids in
Pinellas County, Florida, and found deep racial disparities in
how suspensions were meted out. During their sixth-grade year,
more than 66 percent of poor, black males with disabilities were
suspended once, and many were suspended multiple times. "Special
ed classes aren't much smaller, and teachers are often on emergency
certification. They aren't prepared to work with these kids,"
Mendez said. "The zeitgeist now is zero tolerance, and that
says you get the kid out when there is an infraction." Like
Skiba, Mendez found a connection between suspensions and dropouts
for all students. In the Pinellas cohort, a third of students
disappeared between ninth and twelfth grades. "Kids are on
a path. If they are suspended frequently at the end of elementary
school, it's likely that will continue in middle school. And when
they get to high school, it's very likely they will drop out,"
The school-to-prison pipeline often starts
because teachers and principals are calling 911 and criminalizing
student behaviors that in more tolerant times they would have
handled themselves. "We're seeing very minor conduct becoming
a criminal act. Things a police officer might not arrest someone
for in a bar fight, we're seeing schools calling in police to
make arrests for," said the Advancement Project's Browne.
Browne studied zero tolerance policies
in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Houston and Baltimore schools, and
found many arrests for disorderly conduct. "It could be a
student who refuses to sit down in class, or the spitball,"
she said. "In addition to getting the three-to-five-day suspension,
these kids are getting arrested." Browne said there are no
statistics on the arrest trend nationally, and many districts
don't keep data. But in Miami-Dade, Florida's largest district,
arrests at school nearly tripled between 1999 and 2001, from 820
to 2,435 arrests. Of those, 28 percent were for "miscellaneous"
offenses, and 29 percent were for simple assaults.
Texas schools have also elevated the trivial
transgression to criminal levels. Students can be suspended and
placed in an alternative program for cheating, violating dress
codes, horseplay, excessive noise and failure to bring homework
to class. When students are removed from school, it must be reported
to the county juvenile justice board. That surprised Augustina
Reyes, associate professor of education at the University of Houston
and a former Houston school board member. "I knew there were
a few alternative programs for difficult students, but I'd never
seen the school disciplinary system become part of the juvenile
justice system," said Reyes. "It concerned me that a
14-year-old could be removed from school and all of a sudden,
he has a criminal record."
Reyes looked at statewide data on disciplinary
actions for 2000-01 and found that almost half a million children
from kindergarten through twelfth grade had been suspended from
their classes, with a total of 1.1 million suspensions. What shocked
her most, though, was the nature of school discipline: Of the
total 1.7 million disciplinary actions that year, 95 percent were
for discretionary reasons. "I thought I was going blind with
the numbers," Reyes said. "When you see that only 5
percent of all kids are reported for mandatory reasons-cigarette
smoking is a mandatory reason-I couldn't believe it."
Testing, Testing-and Intolerance
Zero tolerance critics believe the current
emphasis on standardized testing is one reason harsh policies
continue even as school crime plummets. Central to No Child Left
Behind are state and local mandates for annual testing of students
in reading and math, and sanctions for those schools that fail
to increase achievement. Reyes says the fixation on testing and
a growing population of lower-income, mostly Latino, children
in Texas public schools are incentives for suspension and exclusion.
"I've seen how life on campus revolves around testing. If
teachers are told, 'Your scores go down, you lose your job,' all
of a sudden your values shift very quickly," she said. "Teachers
think, 'With bad kids in my class, I'll have lower achievements
on my tests, so I'll use discretion and remove that kid."'
Judith Browne would like to see longitudinal
studies on the relationship between high-stakes testing and the
school-to-prison pipeline. "It makes sense that kids who
don't pass these tests are being punished by being retained in
a grade and are more likely to drop out and more likely to enter
the criminal justice system," she said. Politically, zero
tolerance reflects a steady and purposeful divestment in the public
education system, and 'No Child Left Behind' continues that political
agenda with its underfunded and punitive mandates, according to
Browne. "If we're right about what 'No Child Left Behind'
means, it is really a call for vouchers," she said. "It
means, 'Let's set our schools up to fail so we can go to vouchers,'
and there is language that allows transfers for schools that fail
or are persistently violent, and each state can define what that
For Mark Soler, the fallout from zero
tolerance policies extends far beyond the schoolhouse walls. "The
great tragedy is, we're looking at losing an entire generation
of children, particularly African-American," Soler said.
"If we're going to kick kids out of school and put them on
the pathway to prison, we'll end up with a whole generation of
African-American men who cannot support themselves by lawful means
and are less likely to be present husbands and fathers. The consequences
for our communities are horrible."
Annette Fuentes is a New York journalist.
She received a fellowship in child and family policy from the
University of Maryland, which supported research for this article
with funding from the Foundation for Child Development.