Whether it is getting arrested for doodling on a desk, as Alexa Gonzales, a twelve-year-old student did in New York, or getting expelled from the school for bringing a clear, plastic toy gun in your backpack, as a seven-year-old student did in Florida, chances are that zero tolerance policies are to blame (Boccanfuso).
This term itself can be traced back to 1980s when President Ronald Reagan was waging a war on drugs. To do so, he began encouraging the entire justice system to deliver swift and severe punishment to anyone involved in illicit activities (Teske). Over time, the term found its way into other areas of the U.S. government and by the early 1990s, the school systems began adapting the approach towards major infractions, such as drug and weapon possession, as well as sexual assault (Walker).
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Ironically, as the justice system gradually parted ways with zero tolerance, the policy was cemented in the education system with the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated “”a one-year expulsion for students who have been determined to have brought a firearm or any instrument that can be used as a weapon to school”” (Boccanfuso). Although intriguing in theory and noble in intention, zero tolerance policies became rather troublesome in practice. Year after year, more and more infractions made the zero-tolerance list and soon enough offenses such as smoking and bullying or even swearing and breaking the dress code resulted in expulsions for perpetrators (Boccanfuso).
Over the last twenty-five years, the culture at schools has changed dramatically and nowadays instead of evaluating the infractions on a case-by-case basis while considering all of the circumstances, the majority of school districts choose the easier path and enforce zero tolerance policies on major and minor violations alike (Trone). More often than not, however, zero tolerance policies end up causing more harm than good, and it is imperative for the education system to stop adopting and enforcing them.
Definitionally and fundamentally, zero tolerance policies remove the necessity to consider the circumstances surrounding the infraction in question and thus leave the enforcement to the discretion of the school’s staff. In other words, zero tolerance policies open the floodgates for rampant application bias that overwhelmingly affects minorities and students with disabilities (Teske). In fact, “”Research has consistently indicated that disproportionate percentages of African American, Latino … disabled, and poor students are suspended and expelled in schools with zero tolerance policies”” (Boccanfuso).
The issue is twofold, as the students of color are not only more likely to live in areas where the schools rely on harsh zero-tolerance policies, but are also punished more severely and referred more often than their peers. Furthermore, zero tolerance policies are generally ambiguous and do not specify what constitutes a weapon or a drug, which give the school staff an ability to expel students for something as trivial as a possession of ibuprofen (Morin). Chances are the majority of people working at schools are not racist or ableist, but the ones that are certainly get empowered by zero tolerance policies.
Not only do zero tolerance policies increase overrepresentation of minorities through excessive referrals, but they also give the staff an avenue for harsher and in many cases, unreasonable punishments. In fact, research indicates that black students are suspended nearly four times as often as their white peers while the Latino students are nearly twice as likely to get suspended (Trone). Collectively, increased number of referrals and harsher punishments indicate a clear presence of bias which can only manifest itself in the presence of zero tolerance policies. Unsurprisingly, excessive expulsions and suspensions for minor offenses have major effects on the students´ well being.
Zero tolerance policies diminish the trust the students have in their education system and have negative effects on their mental state and performance at school through excessive punishments. In fact, “”Some of the most rigorous research conducted on the subject of zero tolerance shows that out-of-school suspension can severely disrupt a student’s academic progress in ways that have lasting negative consequences”” (Trone).
In other words, every time a student gets suspended, their performance at school drops. The most obvious reason for this would be missing class and having to make up all of the missed work, but other reasons include being separated from the learning environment and staying unattended at home. In most cases the parents of the student are at work all day, so even if a serious violation has occurred at school, the student gets more freedom to continue misbehavior at home (Teske). Studies conclude that just being separated from the learning environment is enough to encourage more disorderly conduct and an increasingly antisocial behavior (Boccanfuso).
Interestingly enough, the studies also conclude that despite the common belief, being disobedient at school has no impact on the academic performance of the student, however, suspensions and expulsions do (Trone). With every consecutive punishment, the student is more likely to misbehave and get an even harsher punishment in the process. This phenomenon is generally referred to as a school-to-prison pipeline, an idea that increasingly harsh school policies are responsible for the eventual incarceration of the students.
As a matter of fact, “”Suspension and expulsion is the most significant contributing factor for subsequent arrest among adolescent[s]…”” (Teske). Each suspension or expulsion on the record brings a student a step closer to criminalization and potential incarceration, which is especially troublesome as zero-tolerance policies have the propensity to assign harsh punishments for trivial offenses. In an attempt to fix a problem, zero tolerance policies trap the student in a never-ending cycle of academic and social misery, which only exasperates the issues affecting both the school and the student.
Proponents of zero tolerance policies often argue that all the drawbacks pertaining to them are necessary and unavoidable sacrifices because the student that gets punished endangers other students and the more severe the punishment is, the more will it deter other students from violating the disciplinary norms. For that reason, “”Zero tolerance policies generally require out-of-school suspension or expulsion on the first offense”” (Trone).
As zero-tolerance policies are very controversial, there is a variety of research detailing how and why the students get suspended. To be precise, Fratello of the Vera Institute of Justice concludes that nationally, forty-three percent of the suspensions or expulsion are given out for insubordination, while the majority of all punishments were nonviolent and nonmandatory, at least by the zero-tolerance policy (Trone). Schools choose to utilize zero tolerance policies to justify unreasonable punishments for offenses that are nonviolent and do not endanger any of the students.
However, some might still suggest that removing a problematic student will instantly end all the negative influence he or she has the rest of the class. Statistically, however, the assumption does not hold up as the suspension just means the student can no longer interact with his or her classmates at school. Nothing prevents communication outside of school, over the weekends, or over the social media, which means the policy ends up having no impact on the overall safety of other students.
The only tangible impacts are the ones mentioned previously, on the well being of the student that gets suspended. As for deterring other students from misbehaving, “”suspension and expulsion data … suggest that zero tolerance policies are not deterring misbehavior “”(Boccanfuso). If anything, enforcing a policy that frivolously punishes students for offenses that they know are nonviolent only incentivizes further rule breaking from innately rebellious teenagers.
As Nelson Mandela once said, “”Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”” When people think of a school, the picture that comes to mind is a bright place full of opportunities for hardworking and motivated individuals. The intention is to create an environment isolated from the outside world just enough to ensure unimpeded learning. In a place like that, there is no room for a policy that enables discrimination, criminalizes the actions of individuals who are still learning right from wrong, and deteriorates academic as well as mental well-being.