Sep 24, 2015 · 21 minutes

Previously: Part III

Part of the problem with zero tolerance is that terms like “weapons,” “drugs” and “disruption” can be defined arbitrarily.

Policies that were intended to deal with guns and crack ended up scooping up students guilty of having a kitchen knife or alka-seltzer. Instead of expelling the violent few as advocates had hoped, the policies ended up bludgeoning the different, the creative, or simply the poor.

Even so, advocates of zero tolerance believed they were winning, making schools a safer place. The AFT’s 1997 statement touted a major decrease in assaults and threats towards teachers since the implementation of such rules in Texas. It warned against moves by some legislators to allow for more leeway based on individual circumstances.

“Undoubtedly, giving administrators the freedom to relax the rules would make life easier for them: It’s no fun trying to tell angry parents why you can’t make an exception for their child.” Problems, they asserted, weren’t with the policy, they were with its insufficiently strict application, with the refusal to enforce the penalties across the board. In the statement, John Cole, the AFT President at the time, declared, “If you begin to make exceptions for honor students who are caught with marijuana, other students will point out, ‘You let him go; it is not fair to treat me differently.’”

What was important, to make zero tolerance succeed, was for its advocates to remain determined, “they must not retreat.”

* * * *

Two years later, things looked a little less rosy. “Zero tolerance policies lack flexibility,” the headline of a USA Today article fretted. An eighth-grader in the Dallas suburbs—a cheerleader with no disciplinary record—faced five months in a boot camp for having a few drops of everclear mixed into a soft drink. When zero tolerance was applied to inner-city youth, it was a matter for applause. But to suburban kids? To a cheerleader? The article even noted that a teacher called her “a sweetheart,” just to emphasize that this wasn’t some suspect thug from the projects. There was a sense that the beast had slipped its bounds.

This, USA Today’s Dennis Cauchon found, was concerning:

“The criticisms have increased in the past two years as zero-tolerance policies have become standard operating procedure in the nation’s 109,000 public schools.

“Supporters have credited zero-tolerance policies with helping make students feel safer in school, but such policies also have come under fire for their all-or-nothing approach.

“Even many supporters say the get tough effort too often fails to differentiate between good kids who make the typical mistakes of adolescence and the unruly delinquents who can bring learning to a standstill.

“Eighty-seven percent of all schools now have zero-tolerance policies for alcohol and drugs, often resulting in mandatory expulsion, no matter how small the infraction. Ninety-one percent of schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies for bringing a weapon to school.”

By that point, even the AFT was a bit less sanguine about its support for the measure. In stark contrast to the Churchillian rhetoric of its 1997 statement, AFT President Sandra Feldman was now appalled by the lengths to which zero tolerance had gone.

“I’m terribly embarrassed when I read about some of these cases,” she told USA Today. “These are examples of adults not exercising proper responsibility. I’m always in favor of just plain common sense.” Zero tolerance, she notes, didn’t have to mean such harsh penalties for such silly childhood incidents.

The article strikes a hopeful tone. Perhaps, with even its advocates acknowledging some serious flaws, there was a chance to find a practical, compassionate way forward on school safety.

The article is dated April 13, 1999. Seven days later, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire.


Columbine shook Middle America to its prim core, and myth fed its worst fears. Satanists? Check. Outcasts getting back at the jocks (i.e. our kids)? Check. Gun violence in our pristine neighborhoods? Oh yeah. Supposed warning signs that fit a profile? Yes, if only we’d nipped it in the bud. Next time will be different.

What actually happened in Littleton, Colorado is still inexplicable in ways that the actions of most deranged killers are, but it’s worth specifying exactly how much of the popular version is untrue, because it ended up reinforcing the zero-tolerance mindset.

A mythologizing frenzy developed throughout our culture and the popular story became viciously entrenched.

Klebold and Harris were goths, the sort of depressed loners who wrote bad poetry, rejected mainstream religion, and stewed in their own bitterness. They had snapped and perpetrated a massacre and were part of a “trenchcoat mafia,” a bullied underclass waiting to take their revenge.

Rachel Scott, the first student slain, died because she refused to deny Jesus. The same for Cassie Bernall, supposedly shot in the library after she also stood up for her religion. The trenchcoats were a clue too; Klebold and Harris must have seen “The Matrix,” then on a big run at the box office. They must have played violent video games (first-person shooters were still controversial, slightly strange things).

These popular stories had a strong influence on how schools reacted to the massacre. The actions many administrators took were inexplicable except as the result of an animal urge to run after the distant scent of blood. In our case, we were lined up on a cloudy spring morning, every single student, and our backpacks were thrown open.

It was a sight, watching music and math teachers play beat cops for a day. Sensibly dressed public employees rifling through lockers, unwrinkling every note and glowering like we were about to throw a punch. They shouted at the usual problem kids, turned over every bit of student property, and generally made the best show paranoia could muster. As we emptied our backpacks, a friend pointed out that if some would-be shooter were hidden among us, the administrators had clumped the entire student population together, ready for the slaughter. She was told to shut up, keep her head down, and stop complaining.

We laughed, but quickly learned there were new, unwritten rules. Don’t crack a joke. Don’t ever bring stories you write to school, especially if they have any bite. Learn a new set of smiles for when they’re watching.

And the questions. Before it had been the occasional prying barb, now it was a barrage.

“Do you have guns in your house?”

“What’s in your bookbag?”

“Are you crazy?”

As for victims of bullying, Columbine gave school administrators, already a less-than-sympathetic crowd, an active excuse to persecute that entire subgroup. “Well shit, the faggot might have been beat up, but unless they’re expelled, they’ll just bring a gun here and shoot everyone.”

School uniforms even got their day, as did the idea (at least where I grew up) of posting “Under God” quite illegally above the door of a public schoolhouse, as if these rampages were such a force of evil that only the Almighty could stop them.

For a school debate project, the same fundamentalist student who'd ended up with a Currituck Islamic Jihad flier, played images of school shootings to advocate for strict uniforms and behavior rules. Plaid and ties as a deterrent to murder.

* * * *

The consequences of zero tolerance could be even more bizarre. It often involved clear overreaction, parental pressure, or administrators misusing the policy as a convenient weapon against people they already didn’t like.

In October 1999, Benjamin Ratner, 13, knew that a friend of his was suicidal. A fellow student at Blue Ridge Middle School in Loudon County, Virginia, he’d known her for two years. According to court documents, “a schoolmate told Ratner that she had been suicidal the previous evening and had contemplated killing herself by slitting her wrists. She also told Ratner that she inadvertently had brought a knife to school in her binder that morning.”

He took the binder from her and put it in his locker, hoping to prevent another suicide attempt. He didn’t tell administrators, but he intended to tell his parents, and hers, when school let out. Instead, an assistant principal heard he had the knife. The school’s dean asked him about it, and he retrieved it from his locker and gave it to her.

Ratner didn’t respond to requests to speak about his case, but the court documents further explain that in this case the school administrators seemed sympathetic, the dean “acknowledged that she believed Ratner acted in what he saw as the girl’s best interest and that at no time did Ratner pose a threat to harm anyone with the knife.”

But he was suspended until the next term, several months away. The school’s zero-tolerance policy actually declared that any student caught with a weapon should be permanently expelled, so this wasn’t as harsh as things could have been. Ratner’s family, asserting his due process rights were violated and that the policy constituted a cruel and unusual punishment, appealed the case. Eventually the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the school, declaring that “however imperfect,” its policies were constitutional.

“However harsh the result in this case, the federal courts are not properly called upon to judge the wisdom of a zero tolerance policy.”

* * * *

But even AFT was started to admit there were problems. Throughout a 2000 statement, there’s a sense of broken ideals. It’s possible to see where the AFT had come from originally— trying to make a less arbitrary discipline code and to protect teachers from very real threats—and it’s also possible to see they were slowly realizing how badly it had backfired:

“Even the strongest supporters of zero tolerance—and AFT is among them— have to admit that some disciplinary codes are poorly written and poorly administered. It is unfair—and ridiculous—to lump bringing a loaded gun to school with bringing a nail file, but some one-size-fits-all policies seem to do just that. It’s also unfair to ignore a student’s disciplinary record: A kid who breaks the rules all the time deserves different treatment from one who’s made a single, minor misstep. And zero tolerance should never be an excuse for throwing kids out on the streets. Districts need alternative placements for kids who are chronically disruptive, and these must be good learning environments, not miniature prisons.”

In much of the country kids had already been thrown “out on the streets” and “into miniature prisons.” Zero-tolerance policies had first been introduced in districts with large numbers of low-income students and minorities, and the policies had struck them with far more viciousness than it had their wealthier, whiter, suburban counterparts. Of the cases I’ve described so far, it’s worth noting that Brown, the only African-American among them, and the only one from an urban school district, received by far the harshest treatment, especially from the police. In many areas that weren’t the suburbs, zero tolerance wasn’t just absurd, it was barbaric.

In 1992, just to pick one example, the principal of Valverde Elementary School, 11 miles from Columbine High, was making Spanish-speaking children eat their lunches on the cafeteria floor as a punishment. Parents and activists fought for a year to remove him, as did Padres y Jovenes Unidas, a group that has ended up tackling a variety of social justice issues and emerged as a dedicated opponent of zero tolerance. Its early fights even included taking on bigotry in Jefferson County itself (where Columbine is located), when football players shouted slurs at Latino students. In Colorado zero tolerance was enshrined in state law, posing a major barrier that would take over a decade to topple.

Based in northwest Denver, PJU initially took on the issue because of the number of tickets police were issuing to students, and why. While some of the citations were for violence or drugs, most weren’t.

“I’d say 64 percent were for minor misbehaviors, talking back to the teacher, scribbling on a desk, having matches, in one case for a tattoo,” Ricardo Martinez, PJU’s co-executive director, says, and these resulted in criminal charges and often suspension or expulsion. “That was mirrored across the state.” Students were even taken away in handcuffs for disrupting class, or suspended when they tried to stop a fight.

While he observed that Columbine did “give it an added impetus,” the absurd, harshly enforced rules were already there in many areas.

“By 2001, one of the middle schools even had a policy that they would call the police anytime there was physical contact between students, even if it was just a shoving match,” he remembers. At the time, zero tolerance was enshrined in state statute in Colorado, with a huge disparity in how it was enforced.

“With African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, it’s pretty endemic,” Martinez says. “There’s a disparity both in the enforcement and the number of tickets they’ve received.” “They started to identify student behavior as criminal acts,” Martinez says. “What was previously just teenage behavior, maybe inappropriate, became a crime. Instead of a call to the parents, it was a call to the police.”


Columbine started the spread of the zero-tolerance approach to wealthier and more rural school districts. And at the same time that social services nationwide were deteriorating, there was plenty of money for one particular branch of government to compound the problem.

Despite the failure of an armed cop at Columbine to do more than trade a few shots with the killers, spending focused more on increased security, including more cops. This approach often received federal subsidies, especially after 9/11. Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Houston’s school systems, just to name a few, now have their own police departments large enough to eclipse those of a mid-sized city. By 2010 in Texas alone, 163 school districts had their own departments.

Zero tolerance and increased policing “are really closely related,” David Sapp, an attorney who works on these issues for the ACLU’s Southern California chapter, tells me. “There’s this exclusionary approach of saturating campuses with police. That’s happening all over the country, predominantly in urban school districts in particular, those two phenomena occur in parallel.”

Around the same time as changes to federal law and Supreme Court rulings began to shift the balance in favor of zero tolerance, the Department of Justice ramped up the COPS program, which includes grants to schools for resource officers. Since its inception in 1994, the program has spent $11.3 billion funding additional police officers throughout the country.

“You have two different disciplinary authorities, and unless they’re both taking an understanding approach,” you get some incredibly harsh outcomes, Sapp observes.

The presence of cops means that matters go from school discipline issue to criminal charges real quickly. Fights become assaults. Talking back to an authority figure turns into disorderly conduct. The students get suspended, or expelled, with a criminal record to boot. Lower-income families often lack the resources to fight back, or the time to seriously contend with school administrators.

“The practice of a law enforcement agency might be to always press charges in a certain situation, so it’s effectively zero tolerance,” Jason Langberg, a staff attorney with Advocates for Children’s Services, a legal aid organization in North Carolina, says. “There are very few rules about how they have to operate, very little oversight. They’re in this grey area.”

Langberg has fought zero tolerance in both Boston and the Southeast, and has seen the involvement of the police in school discipline, an area they’re unprepared for, often drastically worsen the situation.

School administrators can dish out suspensions, penalize, even harass. When the cops get involved, they do much more. But the state’s school districts have no oversight, no ability to investigate the officer’s conduct, they don’t even keep statistics on the use of force in schools. In recent years, Langberg notes, about 40 percent of all charges in North Carolina’s juvenile justice system now come from school police. Matters even get violent. “We’ve had many students seriously injured by pepper spray and tasers, taken away in handcuffs,” he says. “I had a client who was tasered in the chest so much his lung collapsed.”

* * * *

“One thing you have to realize about zero tolerance is that it’s more a mentality than any specific policy,” Langberg says. “There’s this false dichotomy that schools either have to kick students out or let chaos reign, that’s just not the case.”

He believes the mentality is part of a larger system shuttling lower income and minority students out of schools and often straight into prison, a “pipeline,” as many activists call it. Despite a steady decrease in violent crime, especially at schools, enforcement has become harsher and suspensions have sharply increased.

For example, North Carolina and many other states have actually scaled back or reformed their previous zero tolerance policies, at least on paper. But the increase in policing combined with high stakes testing makes things more precarious than ever.

“A lot of the suspensions didn’t fall technically into zero tolerance, but principals were given unlimited authority, so they could still suspend students for minor offenses, and there’s no limit,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of really young students suspended. I’ve had [a] kindergartner suspended at least three time this year for essentially acting rambunctious, shouting, like a kindergartner.”

He’s seen theft charges filed against elementary-school students for taking paper from a recycling bin, and high schoolers penalized for events that happened off-campus, for even so much as being present at a fight. “Black students aren’t just suspended more often for the same offenses [as whites], they’re suspended for longer,” Langberg says. “In Wake County [the location of Raleigh], for example, students on free and reduced lunch are about a third of the school district but about two-thirds of suspensions.”

Suspensions hit working-class families particularly hard too, “they work two to three jobs during the day, so it’s hard for them to take care of the kids [if they’re suspended], and the neighborhood environment’s not great either. So not only do they receive more suspensions, it impacts them more harshly.”

The data on income and suspensions aren’t even collected state-wide, he adds, making tracking the issue even more difficult.

“In some of these schools with 2,000 plus kids, and no counselors, not enough assistant principals, the principal doesn’t have the time to conduct a full investigation, so they just suspend them,” Langberg says. “In a lot of ways it’s not the fault of the schools, it’s the policymakers who have starved them of resources. Our problem’s not usually with the school, it’s with the system: mental health services are non-existent.”


Interestingly, the 2000 statement from AFT President Feldman addressed criticism not only of zero tolerance, but also of high-stakes testing:

“It’s a shame to see opposition beginning to develop against two of the most important trends in education: higher academic standards and zero-tolerance policies. The higher academic standards that states are putting into place worry parents and others because they fear that too many children will be held back and large numbers will be unable to graduate. Policies that call for zero tolerance of violence, drugs, and weapons in schools are being ridiculed or even called racist because they have been imperfectly—and in some places stupidly—applied.”

Ironically, this policy would become one of zero tolerance’s biggest allies, especially long after teachers’ unions had reconsidered their support. At that time high-stakes testing was rapidly building strength and would soon become federally enshrined through the No Child Left Behind Act—with dire consequences for any attempt to roll back zero tolerance.

“It was a perfect storm,” Langberg remembers. “People are starting to think schools are dangerous, even though all the data says otherwise. Then comes all this federal pressure to increase test scores.”

With more resources tied up in test prep, there were fewer resources to help students before their issues got worse. It also made the school environment less engaging, increasing behavioral issues further. On top of that, it provided a perverse incentive to use the arbitrary rules zero tolerance had created. Bluntly, Langberg says, “Sometimes the easiest way to improve your test scores is just to kick the lower performing students out.”

As standardized testing metastasized, schools would actively counsel kids to leave, especially if they already had problems. Maisie Chin, an experienced community organizer and co-founder of the parent organization CADRE, saw it happen at the ground level.

“It’s off the books, but it would all happen in the fall, right when they nail down their enrollment figures and right before testing,” she says. “You push out 100 of your ‘worst’ kids, that’s 100 fewer kids you have to test, your proportion [of students in school] goes up, it looks like you’ve made an improvement. If they were the kids who were failing, it’s now a different pool, so the test scores probably go up too.”

* * * *

In this new environment, there were reputations to be made, especially if one toed the line with the educational overhaul favored by billionaires and “centrist” reformers. While this particular faction of reformers caused controversy with charter schools and reductions to teachers’ job security, it was also responsible for mass suspensions.

While suspensions rose immediately after the post-Columbine freakout, they really started to skyrocket when No Child Left Behind clamped its teeth down in 2002. Low-performing schools, many located in the same impoverished districts where zero tolerance had its start, now faced massive pressure to raise their test scores or else face crippling sanctions. “Test, Punish, and Pushout,” a 2010 report from the civil rights organization the Advancement Project, marshals a legion of data showing the links between the two as part of the overall school-to-prison pipeline:

“Because of the focus on test scores and the severe consequences attached to them, if a student acts up in class, it is no longer in educators’ self-interest to address it by the student’s unmet needs or treating the incident as a “teachable moment.” It is much easier and more “efficient” to simply remove the child from class through punitive disciplinary measures and focus on the remaining students.”

Out-of-school suspensions, the report found, had more than doubled in many states. African-American students were particularly hard hit, seeing a 33-percent increase in out of- school suspensions nationwide between the 2002-03 and ’06-’07 school years.

The effects also helped the tendency towards school policing, especially as they coincided with the post-9/11 glut of money for law enforcement. By 2010, Chicago’s public schools spent $51.4 million on security guards.

As CEO of that same system until 2008, Arne Duncan, received the most controversy. This was due to clashes with teachers’ groups, as well to his replacement of neighborhood schools with charter schools (which notably have a much higher expulsion rate). But lo and behold, annual suspensions also quadrupled during Duncan’s tenure, from 23,942 to 93,312, according to figures from the Illinois Department of Education cited in the above report. The length increased too, with the number of lengthy suspensions (from 4 to 10 days) rising from 5,468 to 25,140.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation. As Chin points out, it’s hard to always pinpoint anything more nefarious than a harsher—if horrifically so—discipline policy, much less prove a motive for anything more intentional. But Chicago wasn’t alone in seeing more police, more criminal charges, and more suspensions, especially in districts often held up as a models of improved test scores.

Sometimes suspending for a test isn’t off the books, either. Throughout the 2000s, El Paso Schools Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia touted

massive improvements in test scores. He was twice nominated for Texas Superintendent of the Year and racked up over $56,000 in bonuses. But in August 2011, he was arrested, and charged with possibly the most blatant example of abusing zero tolerance. As the New York Times later reported after he plead guilty:

“Students identified as low-performing were transferred to charter schools, discouraged from enrolling in school or were visited at home by truant officers and told not to go to school on the test day. For some, credits were deleted from transcripts or grades were changed from passing to failing or from failing to passing so they could be reclassified as freshmen or juniors.”

Last year, a Department of Education report confirmed what anti-zerotolerance campaigners had asserted for some time, that “African-American students, particularly males, are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers.”

In his new role as Secretary of Education, Duncan expressed great distress at the findings, saying the unequal access to education and harsh punishment “violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

To be continued...

David Forbes
Written By
David Forbes
David Forbes is the editor of the Asheville Blade and author of the Old Iron Dream. They live in Asheville, N.C. and their work has appeared on NSFWCorp, Vice Motherboard, Coilhouse, the Sunlight Foundation and more.