Arresting Development: Why Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools Aren’t Working

Increased police presence and zero tolerance policies in schools have done little to stem school violence while pushing students into the school to prison pipeline.

| September/October 2012

  • School Desks
    The NYPD’s school safety division has more than 5,000 officers, making it the fifth largest police force of any kind in the country—larger than the police forces Boston, Detroit, Las Vegas, or Washington, D.C.
  • Head In The Clouds
    The idea of the “teachable moment,” turning a student error into a learning opportunity, is less likely in a schoolhouse where handcuff-wielding cops teach the lesson.

  • School Desks
  • Head In The Clouds

A week before classes ended last spring, 13-year-old Diana Nava was waiting with her mother, Modesto, for the Los Angeles city bus that goes near her school. Even though her mother had awakened Diana early, she was behind schedule. An LA police officer patrolling for truants spotted them at the bus stop and gave Diana a ticket for violating the city’s daytime curfew. “My mother said, ‘She’s on her way to school,’ but the officer said it didn’t matter.” For being late, Nava and her mother would have to go to court and face a $350 fine, a loss in time and money they could ill afford.

Nava was one of a dozen LA students who testified in August 2011 about their experiences with the truancy sweeps by LAPD officers and LA school police that have resulted in nearly 50,000 tickets since 2004. The hearing was called by Judge Michael Nash, head of LA’s juvenile court system, in response to five years of organizing by parents, students, and youth advocates against what they see as unfair and ineffective policies. Supposedly designed to improve student attendance, this aggressive truancy policing has discouraged students from going to class and often pushes them to drop out and into harm’s way.

Jose Gallego’s story is a case in point. The 23-year-old explained: “I’m a high school dropout. I was supposed to graduate in 2008, but I missed a few days of school because my parents were going through a hard time. They kicked me out of school. So, then I started selling CDs downtown. I was arrested for selling CDs, I was locked up, and I got out with a whole different perspective. I never had been in juvenile detention. I didn’t know what to do. I started selling drugs. Now I’m lost. I’ve got a little brother and a little sister, they don’t look up to me anymore. I’m a two-time convicted felon. It’s hard for me to get a job.”

Los Angeles is not the only place where heavy-handed policing has become a problem that advocates say puts students at risk of dropping out. From New York to Florida to Texas, the combination of zero tolerance policies and the increased role of police—in schools and on the streets—has led to an alarming number of suspensions, expulsions, and contact of ever-younger children with the criminal justice system.

Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools

The term “zero tolerance” was first coined during the Reagan presidency and the war on drugs in the 1980s. Congress enacted the Drug-Free School and Communities Act in 1986, bringing the war on drugs to school with rules that mandated zero tolerance for any drugs or alcohol on public school grounds. During the Clinton administration, Congress took zero tolerance policies in schools steps further, passing the 1994 Safe and Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated a one-year expulsion for students who brought a firearm to school and pumped federal departments of Education and Justice funding into antiviolence programs. Youth, especially African American and Latino males, were considered by criminologists like James Q. Wilson and John Dilulio as superpredators who would fuel an explosive juvenile crime wave in coming decades. A half-dozen high-profile school shootings in the early 1990s, punctuated by the 1999 Columbine shootings, cemented the idea that young people and the public schools they inhabited were dangerous places indeed.

Fear of school violence grew and has persisted despite the clear downward trend in documented incidents of violent crimes in schools. Since 1993, according to reports issued annually by the National Center for Education Statistics, incidents of violence in school have been steadily dropping. It is a downward trend that echoes the same crime drop in the nation as a whole. But fear of crime in schools has trumped reality and common sense in shaping policies at the state and local school board levels. Zero tolerance policies in schools, once focused on drugs, alcohol, and guns, now target an ever-expanding range of behaviors.

Bob Bennett
9/5/2012 2:36:00 PM

Thank you for identifying one of the many problems youth in America face. At the time of my first arrest - in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago - I went from working for a small computer company to a series of arrests, and was appalled by the cover-ups and denials that permeate the criminal justice system. A short video about some of the other problems - as well as pointing at some solutions can be found at: The Plea Bargain System - An Evil Destroying America ?

Katherine McGuire
8/31/2012 2:30:54 PM

Wish they had talked more about special education students, who are also the victims of zero tolerance policies. My son, who has autism, was suspended from school twice in first grade for minor incidents. I wasn't there when the incidents occurred, so I can't say for sure, but in at least one case it sounded like the administrator involved did not follow his IEP/BIP.

8/30/2012 6:56:45 PM

The article was illuminating but failed to mention the very real, dangerous and intimidating presence of gangs and gang wanna-be's on campus, which plays a big role in the necessity of metal detectors and armed security on campus. The lockdown on school campuses didn't happen in a vacuum, it was brought about by the need for order and safety for both students and faculty.

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