Discipline and Punish

Discipline and Punish

Zero tolerance policies have created a “lockdown environment” in schools.


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.

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 1990s, 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 middleschool, 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 overrepresented 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 schoolkids 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,” Mendez said.

Criminal Intents

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 means.”

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.”

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy