Zero Tolerance Continues

One of the worst things that has happened around public schools is “zero tolerance” policies which began in the 1990s. Despite the continuous criticisms of such policies, they continue without abatement.  Which reinforces the notion that schools are often little more than “day prisons.” I’m in the process of updating one of my books, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice in American Society. Part of my chapter on the subject of schools and delinquency contains an update on this issue.

One of the problems with zero tolerance relates to the rights of students. One of the most important rights accorded adults is the one spelled out in the famous Miranda warnings. In June of 2011, the Supreme Court addressed this issue.  In J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the court examined the response by the police who suspected that a 13-year-old special education student had committed neighborhood burglaries and arrived at school to question him. He was interrogated in a school conference room in the presence of school officials, but his parents were not contacted. He confessed to the crimes. Arguing that the boy was effectively in police custody when he incriminated himself, the family sought to have his confession suppressed because he was never read his Miranda rights. In December 2009, the North Carolina Supreme Court determined that he was not in custody and therefore was not entitled to Miranda warnings. The Supreme Court did not set a strict rule for what qualifies as “in custody” in a school setting. The Court did, however, say age was a critical factor in determining whether an adolescent would feel free to leave an interrogation.

Jorge Rodriguez, who was a juvenile public defender for thirteen years in Indianapolis, calls the nexus of school and law enforcement a serious gray area. He believes interrogations of juveniles in school are “frequent enough that it doesn’t surprise me when it happens. We see the police using the school as an access avenue to a kid without their parents.”  Indiana requires a parent to be present in order for anything a juvenile says to be admissible in a court proceeding. Rodriguez says that typically the police officer will sit in the corner while the principal questions the student. Having confessed once, he or she will often repeat the confession with parents in the room—not understanding that the first confession could not be used against them in a court proceeding. “I’ve seen situations where, clearly to me, [law enforcement] are using school officials and setting to circumvent the law, knowing they can’t do it directly.”

Public schools more and more resemble “Big Brother” watching every movement. Monitoring devices have become a big business. Numerous companies have entered the market, including many that sell surveillance equipment to private prisons or GPS monitoring devices to state agencies for probationers and parolees. The use of GPS devices has been extended to schools to monitor truants. Students punch in an identification code into the GPS device.  Supporters claim that the devices have helped reduce truancy.  While the long-term effects are unknown, use of the technology represents another potential entry into the “school-to-prison” pipeline. If truants fail the monitoring program, they will probably be referred to juvenile court.  The vice president of one company said “We have so much business that we can hardly keep up with manufacturing.  We’re exploding.”  In a brief Google search, the author found several companies engaging in the business of surveillance.  One was called “KeepnTrack,” with the motto “School Safety. Serious Business.”  Their website is filled with “school security solutions” such as “visitor tracking,” “student tracking,” “staff tracking” and “vendor tracking.”  The company sells a variety of accessories such as an ID scan, a laser scanner, and a “Verifi Fingerprint Reader.”

In addition to the cost of surveillance systems, there are concerns that security devices may be ineffective and create more problems—not the least of which is the invasion of privacy. For example, the Boston suburb of Lexington installed its third security system in a middle school. The cost was $46,750 funded by a federal grant to the Lexington Police department; upkeep was projected as $5–10,000 annually. Concerns about the cost of replacing property damaged by vandalism and graffiti seem to outweigh concerns about privacy. Many schools throughout the Boston area have security devices automatically installed as part of the architectural design of the schools.  A staff attorney for the ACLU said government should not be watching people all of the time. “The more we make our schools like a prison, the more we get away from what I consider good education’’ The use of such devices has spread throughout the country, as noted here and here.  Many are requiring students to use a “radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag.” A pilot program was begun in San Antonio in 2013 that involved tagging about 4,000 students in two schools.  One critic commented that it’s the same method that ranchers use to track herds of cattle. “Students are not cattle and schools are not farms.” Supporters argue that this “provides a more accurate means of tracking attendance. Students won’t be mistakenly recorded as absent when they are actually on campus—visiting the school nurse or meeting with a guidance counselor, for example.”

Recently Austin, Texas (and other school districts in Texas) has stopped the use of GPS devices to keep track of students who frequently skipped school.  This began in 2010 when schools began “singling out students who were often late to class or skipped school and sending them to ‘truancy court,’ where a judge would decide whether to outfit them with Aim Truancy Solutions GPS trackers.”  In Austin about 1,000 students were being monitored “between the time they leave for school in the morning and the time they check in for curfew at night.”  According to one report:  “Students being forced to wear GPS trackers like tagged animals reportedly only increased attendance by a paltry 2 percent, but the media, school administrators and Aim still touted the program as a huge success, largely because every time a tagged student attended class, schools earned money.”

Since the institution of strict zero tolerance policies at schools around the country, students are regularly suspended or even expelled for offenses that range from the relatively minor, like minimal marijuana possession, to the truly ridiculous, like possession of a dull table knife to cut a grapefruit at lunch or taking Tylenol for a headache. Paranoid school officials and parents look for tell-tale signs of potentially violent students, including turning to a FBI “profiling software” that suggests that the following are “signs for potential shooters”: “having parental troubles, disliking popular students, experiencing a failed romance, and listening to songs with violent lyrics.” These clues should narrow it down to around 90% of all students!

Here are some of the many examples illustrating how absurd and illogical zero tolerance has become (taken from here and here):

·         A 13-year-old boy at Weaverville Elementary School in California shared his school lunch (a chicken burrito) with a hungry friend. For this, he got detention. Superintendent Tom Barnett explained, "Because of safety and liability we cannot allow students to actually exchange meals.”

·         The mother of a special needs child in Walnut Grove, Missouri, raced to school when she got a "frantic" call from her kid's teacher. After she was buzzed into the building, she ran straight to his room, thereby committing the cardinal sin of not signing in. The school went into lockdown. Cops arrived and took the mom to the police station, where she was charged with trespassing.

·         Ethan Chaplin, 13, was twirling his pencil, which made the child sitting behind him feel "threatened or uncomfortable." That's all it took for the Vernon, New Jersey, school to send Chaplin for a 5-hour physical and psych evaluation. His urine was tested and blood drawn. “We never know what’s percolating in the mind of children, okay?" the superintendent, Charles Maranzano, said. "When they demonstrate behaviors that raise red flags, we must do our duty.”

·         Da'von Shaw, a Bedford, Ohio, high school student, brought apples and raisins to school for a "healthy eating" presentation. When he took out a knife to slice an apple, his teacher told him he was not allowed to use it. He immediately handed it over to her. Case closed? Nope. Later that day he was suspended for a week because he brought a weapon to school.

·         Josh Welch was enjoying a strawberry pastry at school when he decided to get creative with his eating. The 7-year-old with ADHD decided to nibble the breakfast treat into the shape of a mountain, but from his teacher’s perspective, it looked more like a gun. Welch did not even pantomime shooting a gun, but for chewing something that could somehow be construed as violent, he received a two-day suspension from school.


These are just a small sample of what happens when policies are so vague and overreaching, resulting in often traumatizing punishments of children (more examples are found here and here).

Finally, we have the case of Nick Stuban, a 15 years old who played football for Woodson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. He helped care for his mother, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. On November 3, 2010, he purchased a single capsule of a legal synthetic compound that acts like marijuana at school. Someone told school officials, and Nick confessed. The Student Responsibilities and Rights handbook states that a first offender under the influence of cocaine or Ecstasy or alcohol at school would receive a suspension of 5 to 10 days—no expulsion, no hearing process, no school transfer. The hearing officer in Nick’s case explained that influence is different because "that student hasn't brought anything on school grounds" that endangers others. Nick was suspended immediately. He was banned from Woodson and from the weekly Boy Scout meetings, sports events, and driver's education sessions, which were held on school grounds. The rumor mill generated exaggerated versions of why he'd been suspended. The hearing took place two weeks later. Nick’s parents did not hire a lawyer on the advice of a school administrator, who counseled that doing so might create a confrontational climate. The ruling of transfer to another school was issued December 14—six weeks after the incident, right before winter break .

Over the next 11 weeks, his mistake unraveled much of what Nick held close—his life at school, his sense of identity, his connection to the second family he'd found in his football team. Nick's emotional descent was steeper than anyone imagined, and its painful finality brought light to a discipline system that many Fairfax families call too lengthy, too rigid and too hostile. 

Nick committed suicide on January 20, 2011.

Writing in Time Magazine, Nancy Gibbs had this to say about this tragedy:

Thus has Fairfax County become the latest to reconsider whether the edicts born of fear and Columbine actually make any sense or keep anyone safe. The original rules against drugs and knives soon swelled, with schools that once called parents now calling the police. Suddenly middle schoolers were being suspended for puddle stomping and Alka-Seltzer possession or referred to a drug awareness program for accepting a breath mint. . . . A 9-year-old perp was questioned by police about a plan to launch a spitball with a rubber band; he had to undergo psychological counseling before he could go back to class. . . . A high school sophomore was suspended for breaking the no-cell-phone rule when he took a call from his father who was serving in Iraq. A Florida honor student faced felony charges when a dinner knife—not a steak knife or a butcher knife—was found on the floor of her car, which she had parked at school. “A weapon is a weapon is a weapon,” the principal said.

Except it’s so obviously not. Sometimes a weapon is just a dinner knife. Making distinctions is part of learning. So is making mistakes. When authorities confuse intent and accident, when rules are seen as more sacred than sense, when a contrite first-time offender is treated no differently from a serial classroom menace, we teach children that authority is deaf and dumb, that there is no judgment in justice. It undermines respect for discipline at a stage when we want kids to internalize it. 

Schools have always been the safest place for kids – long before the onslaught of zero tolerance policies. The above policies reinforce the notion of schools as “day prisons” rather than places of learning. We have become a fearful nation and too often base policies on worse case scenarios, the exceptional case that makes the headlines and creates an illusion of danger. This has often been called “moral panic” which has been defined as “a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is/are claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place.”  The groups that benefit the most from such panics include law enforcement agencies, politicians and the news media.  Rarely does the public benefit. Neither do schools and the children who attend them.