Sep 25, 2015 · 11 minutes

Previously: Part Four

At this point, if zero tolerance were a person, it would be old enough to vote. But despite efforts at rolling back some of the policies propping it up, many people still remain unaware of its flaws, and its defenders can come from some surprising quarters, according to those who’ve fought against it for years.

“Look, at this point it’s empirically demonstrated that there will be consequences to these policies, and that they will disproportionately hit low-income students and students of color,” Sapp says. “But people either aren’t aware of it or they think, 'It’s not going to happen to my kid.’ And sadly, that’s kind of true. A lot of this policy’s being driven by whiter, more affluent parts of America that aren’t going to be affected by the negative consequences.”

Look at the media coverage of the issue over the years, for example. With some exceptions, it has generally focused on a few absurd incidents, usually in more suburban areas, and usually with no mention of the even harsher, longer-lasting effects on the rest of the country.

High-stakes testing and zero tolerance are of a piece, embodying a mentality of mistrust and punishment of the entire public school system, teachers and students alike. The issue of educational “reform” too, cuts across the usual political boundaries, with strong support on the corporate right, but also getting positive coverage from the liberals at NPR, especially when they’re paid. The punitive effects aren’t just limited to students and teachers, either. “The racism, the disdain for the families of these children often isn’t talked about,” Chin says. Especially once the police get involved, it’s possible for low-income families to lose food stamps and public housing as punishment for their child’s behavior in school.

“It’s all tied to an overall zero tolerance to poor people, if they ever screw up, they’ll cut what they need to survive. They’re deemed as punishable. Zero tolerance is part of a larger fabric that makes it impossible to get out; when you’re poor, you’re at the mercy of these policies.”


Rosalinda Hill lived between two gang territories in Los Angeles, raising five children, four of them boys. In 1999 she started working with Maisie Chin and meeting with other parents about what they saw happening.

“It was a matter of life and death for her and her sons,” Chin remembers. “They would disengage, give up. She was one of those parents that worked with the school, but even still her sons were kicked out. Zero tolerance began to balloon, even though she didn’t call it that.”

The two founded CADRE from the feeling that “there was so little parents could do to stop this” when their children were kicked out for “willful defiance” or similar offenses. “I think people knew it was wrong,” Chin said. “Often it was the attitude as much as any law on the books. It seemed to be zero tolerance towards African-American boys, African- American children just being in the classroom. The second they didn’t follow an instruction, things got reactionary.”

The school didn’t take into account “the constant daily stress and trauma” that she and her children went through where they lived. “No one likes talking back, but no one bothered to see if there were conditions that at least made it understandable,” Chin says. “The school seemed to have no ability to deal with that.”

Hill died in March 2012 after a long battle with breast cancer, but CADRE has continued to battle the problem of “pushout,” their term for when discipline, especially combined with a lack of support and police presence, leads students to leave school. “Back then, we thought if we could just get parents called before their kids were suspended, but that often never happened,” Chin says. “You had minors sent home in the middle of the day, unaccompanied, often to very dangerous places. Then they’re suspected on the street, 'Oh why aren’t you in school?’ So they get tickets for loitering, tickets for truancy.” The whole thing resulted in a downward spiral, one that could even see the parents kicked out on the street through zero tolerance.

“There’s a complete disdain for families in policy,” Chin says “Schools have yet to figure out how to build relationships with their parents. Building relationships with the parents of the kids you want to kick out? Pretty much not going to happen. So they have to get active politically against zero tolerance. This is happening everywhere, in every district, in the rural areas, to everyone at the bottom.”

* * * *

The ACLU, which has often represented students hit worst by zero tolerance policies in specific cases, has also tried to form coalitions to fight the larger system that has emerged, especially around the impact on lower income students. It’s a main member of Dignity in in Schools, a coalition that also includes CADRE and Padres Unidos y Juvenos, among other zero tolerance opponents.

“It’s not that African-American or Latino students are more disobedient,” but how disobedience is interpreted, Sapp says. “The research shows that’s incredibly racially skewed,” especially for many of the misdemeanors and minor offenses that generally constitute the majority of criminal charges handed out in schools. But one of the difficulties, he says, is the extremely decentralized nature of the American school system.

Even if zero tolerance is repealed at the state level, it can remain in force from local administrators and school boards that are simply used to operating that way. “They can just adopt a policy at the district level, for example, that fighting’s a problem, and set zero-tolerance rules for it,” Sapp says, so every student involved in a fight can get kicked out, even if the state policy has become more reasonable.

“The impetus behind both of those phenomena is largely a fear-based reaction from communities that always felt schools had been a safe place,” Sapp says, until a shooting like Columbine or Newtown punctures that illusion. “There’s this understandable reaction of 'our kids have to be safe,' and that’s where these policies come from.” In his observation, the arbitrary decisions by different authorities even feed on each other, so “a frustrated teacher will just call a cop in and ask him to arrest a student or give them a ticket” rather than going through the usual school discipline process. “There’s so much discretion, that there’s a range for very different application,” he says. “What’s viewed as hostility to a white teacher or cop can be viewed as being an assertive male in an African-American community.”

Decreased education funding, especially for teachers and services, doesn’t help matters.

“It’s an easy response: if there’s a student causing a disruption, even if it’s something that could be handled, it’s easier to just kick them out, because you have 40 others to deal with,” Sapps says.

* * * *

Opponents of zero tolerance don’t just come from leftist civil liberties stalwarts and community groups, either. Gun groups have attacked zero tolerance as an example of a meddlesome nanny state, for example (remember the ARA’s reaction to Locke’s case), and WorldNetDaily hailed Ratner as a “hero” hit by a nefarious and absurd government. One major opponent from the right wing is the Rutherford Institute, founded as a Christian Reconstructionist legal group, it claims to have made an about-face as a civil liberties group. It has aggressively criticized zero tolerance and defended, in court, many students (including Ratner) suspended or expelled under those policies. Its founder, John Whitehead, sees zero tolerance as another way of creating compliant citizens helpless before a “government of wolves,” to use the title of his latest book. “Everything changed after Columbine, we’d see these crazy cases, teachers’ unions writing these policies that don’t define 'weapon’ very well,” he says. “In these new cases, the police are almost always involved, we see six-yearolds getting arrested for food fights.”

“I threw so many spitballs in school I’d get expelled for life,” he adds, chuckling. “I think they’re so busy chasing around these kids that the ones with weapons are going to get through.”

What Whitehead sees as missing from zero-tolerance policies is any consideration of the student’s intent. “Without intent, everything’s a weapon,” he says. “I ask teachers what’s the most dangerous weapon they see in the classroom, and they say pencils. They’re crazy.”

Ratner’s case is a particularly tragic example, he says, of what happens when intent disappears from educators’ calculations.

“The school had done nothing to help this girl… He saved that girl’s life, but they still kicked him out of school.”

* * * *

If so many groups and constituencies, from so many different sides, believe that zero tolerance is ridiculous. Why does it endure? Why does there seem to be more fear in schools, not less? And more police, not fewer? Who supports this behemoth?

For Whitehead, the answer simple: teachers’ unions.

“It’s national educators’ associations; all of them are pushing for those,” he says. “They’re deeply entrenched.” In this role, he believes they help a trend throughout society that destroys civil liberties.

“I think it’s just the way our society views people now,” Whitehead says. “Our police are becoming very militarized, 80,000 SWAT team raids, police going through doors. You’ve got the NSA watching all of our email, text messages. It’s just the way our government views us is different from the way it used to view us. I even talk to police that are concerned about the way they see children and average Americans. It’s part of this whole matrix.”

The opinions of teachers on reforming zero tolerance are mixed in her observation, Chin says, but some do oppose it, usually covertly, “it’s not politically popular, so it’s in the implementation where the opposition shows up.”

One of the main points of tension she sees is a plea for support, a call “that you just can’t take away our powers of suspension or our discretion” without more resources for training for new alternatives.

Because zero tolerance has endured for so long, Chin believes it’s hard to adapt to a different mindset, “especially in an era of budget cuts, austerity, and this pressure for high test scores. I think teachers feel exceptionally overburdened.”

“No one knows how to do anything else [besides zero tolerance], it’s not taught in teacher credentialling, it’s not part of teacher evaluations,” she says. “There’s no incentive to do this at the classroom level or have it be a schoolwide approach. There are pockets of teachers and individuals doing this, but no system for it.”

Chin says she understands the complaints, especially given the negative effects of high-stakes testing, but the culture of school discipline has to change, “we just need to do better, children are dying. More support, like having a positive after-school program is fine, but who’s going to be there if you’ve kicked out all the kids who need it?”

Sadly, she says while suspensions have dropped, the racial disparity has actually increased. Meanwhile, law enforcement is mixed as well, “There’s a frustration, a lot of them don’t want to focus on school discipline, they want to go after criminal behavior.”

But while tickets have declined, police still don’t want less cash or power. “The law-enforcement lobby is incredibly resistant to anything that restricts their authority,” Chin says. “The resistance comes when you restrict or cut their budget. Cutting their force is very unpalatable.”

“Our biggest pushback was from principals, assistant principals, and some teachers,” Martinez says. “Especially when the disparity came up. People would say ‘I’m not racist.’ That may be so, but there’s still a disparity, so we have to address the issue. That was probably the biggest source of pushback.”

But he says that “to everyone’s credit,” educators, parents, and PJU were able to “work these things through.” He regards the conversations about discrimination in the school system as “hard, the hardest ones we can have, but that makes them the most necessary.”

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.