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 day.”
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 alike.
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 withhandcuffs. “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-1980s. 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.