Sep 28, 2015 · 18 minutes

Previously: Part Five

I talked with a number of teachers for this series. Most refused to go on the record for fear of potential consequences. Many didn’t like zero-tolerance policies, but also talked about the steady gutting of resources and the bizarre vicissitudes the frenzy for test scores has created in the educational process.

One, who works in an elementary school in a North Carolina city, agreed to be quoted on the condition that I use an alias.

Cybil Tanner was in high school in when Columbine happened, a “goody two-shoes” who managed to mostly escape the zero-tolerance crackdowns that followed (her sister wasn’t so lucky, she noted, and got a three-day suspension for a dubious charge). Just in her years in the classroom, she’s seen services cut and cut again, harming teachers’ ability to know their students or to deal with the particularly troubled ones before their issues get worse.

“I’ve been a teacher for eight years, and bit by bit I’ve seen the resources decrease,” she says. “Both from state and local levels, it’s gone down.”

“When you know your students you understand the situation and don’t blow it out of proportion,” Tanner says. “You know if they just had a pocketknife from a camping trip or if they have a history of violence.”

Her school’s policies call for automatic suspension for a weapon, for example, for a time at the discretion of the principal. Fortunately, she says, her principal has generally been reasonable—he’ll call a parent when a minor pocketknife-type incident comes up.

“But that’s because he knew the students, if the principal hadn’t, there weren’t connections with the community, things could have gone differently.”

Still, fears about teacher safety are real, she noted, especially because public schools have to deal with students from communities suffering from crime and decades-long neglect: she’s seen students as young as first-grade so violent the police had to restrain them. Parents are also an issue; at one point one wandered the halls harassing teachers.

“As an educator I’m not sure how much good we do by suspending our students,” she says. “For those students that have mental health issues, or have really horrible situations at home, sending them home is not really a way to deal with it.”

Students who can’t sleep because they hear gun shots at night come to school angry, angry at a lot of things,” she says. “They have to have the skills to survive in their community, but then they’re expected to survive in our middle-class environment.”

Even though she feels her school tries to do a good job identifying problems and gathering together multiple administrators and teachers to solve it, her school no longer has the funds to even do in-school suspension. The assistants that played a major role in helping teachers better know their students and deal with problems early are largely gone now. The sole social worker is spread across several schools, and hers alone has over 400 students. “Our teachers end up having the burden of all this,” Tanner says. “You already have to juggle students and every one of their needs. But rather than being able to ask for help, our teachers have to deal with it themselves.”

That whole process makes discipline more arbitrary, she believes, especially as class sizes balloon. Her colleagues tell her that when they’re teaching classes of 40 students, it’s hard to know more than a quarter of them well.

“There’s only so many ways a teacher’s time can be split up,” she says. “It’s only getting worse.” Currently, her school has a hiring freeze.

* * * *

Despite the hysteria that followed the Newtown shootings, there are pushes for reform, and even some notable successes in bringing an end to over two decades of zero tolerance.

While unions like the AFT have been strong proponents of zero tolerance, many have done an about-face in recent years, even working directly with longtime critics of the policies. A 2012 statement from AFT President Randi Weingarten, while not using the words “zero tolerance,” announces its willingness to work with Solutions Not Suspensions.

That’s a campaign backed by Dignity in Schools—the coalition including the ACLU, Padres y Jovenes Unidos, CADRE, and other zero-tolerance opponents. The statement, after echoing the points of many critics, especially about racial disparity, strongly backs the push:

“We cannot turn our backs on millions of children. This is a serious issue that demands a serious national response. Our failure to collectively address the issue of out-of-school suspensions and the lack of high-quality alternative placements hurts not just the kids who are suspended; it directly impacts all our communities.”

The statement notes that many AFT locals were already working to reform suspension and expulsion policies. “I wouldn’t say teachers’ unions are not among the leaders saying ‘Yes, we need to repeal these policies,’ but they’re not among the most vocal or powerful advocates of [zero-tolerance] policies,” Sapp says of his experience trying to overhaul the laws. “But they’re also grappling with the consequences of how they’re being implemented.”

“In some ways things have gotten better, we’re seeing a scaling back of some zero-tolerance policies, more implementation of alternative suspensions,” Langberg says, combined with more openness to questioning the whole approach. But he cautions that sometimes the move to push more students out continues, just under a different guise.

“The same number of students are still being pushed out and ending up in alternative schools….They’re not counted as suspended, but they’re ending up in programs that are wholly inadequate.”

In Wake County, for example, “alternative education” can entail simply enrolling in an online program. The school still receives cash for the student technically being in the system, but it doesn’t have to support them with food, transportation or counseling costs. “Typically the kids that need the most intervention and help are receiving the least,” Langberg says. “They can cut the suspension rate and save a little money.” Langberg wants to see smaller class sizes and proper services for children facing issues, combined with saner discipline policies.

Some of that is happening and some of it isn’t, especially with an aggressive GOP legislature in Raleigh averse to spending money on anything related to social welfare, especially in poor urban areas.

Some opposition has even emerged from the judiciary itself. Judge Steve Teske, in Georgia, has blasted zero tolerance as “zero intelligence” and taken the lead in crafting a new policy that seeks to opt for counseling and support before criminal charges, especially for minor offenses.

But Chin notes supporters still face an uphill battle, with focus on a particular case obscuring the fact that the approach to school discipline, nationwide, is severely messed-up. “We have to transform this from a personal responsibility matter to a system fight.”

* * * *

Just as zero tolerance struck low income and minority students the hardest, it is their communities that have organized some of the most determined and effective opposition, with groups like CADRE and Padre y Juvenos Unidas working to overhaul the way schools discipline students, and to curb the involvement of law enforcement. Los Angeles, Buffalo, and Denver are among the cities that have finally forbidden suspensions for vague categories like “willful defiance.” In some cases, they’ve even committed to rolling back police presence. Sapp is optimistic that this part of zero tolerance may fall as quickly as it took hold.

“You are seeing more districts saying, ‘We’re just not going to suspend students for minor violations,’” Langberg says. “That’s where most of the racial disparity occurs, and I don’t think it ever has productive consequences.”

“There’s still almost no support, that’s not changed,” Chin says. “There’s just a little more scrutiny now. With the policy changes we and others have fought for, they know they’re being watched. Before that it was the domain of the school, it never came under scrutiny.”

In fact, the Los Angeles Unified School District did come under increasing fire for its disproportionate suspension of African-American students, especially when many of them turned out to be untreated special education cases.

“Frankly, I don’t think this entire nation has figured out how to treat black children,” Chin says. In 2005 there were a series of violent incidents (the press dubbed them riots) at five L.A. High schools, and “a lot of kids got swept up, and they’re suspended en masse.”

But this time, CADRE helped rally a push for a new policy, emphasizing a schoolwide approach with less focus on suspension. Chin says the public expected something even harsher than what was already in place, “but instead we put a more restrained approach where suspension was a last resort.” In 2007 they got their new policy, making L.A. the first major urban school district to move away from zero tolerance.

Since then, they’ve helped reform the L.A. policies further, including establishing a student bill of rights that specifically reduces the role of school police. Dignity in schools has pushed for federal funds for more support and fewer police subsidies.

PJU, who’ve worked extensively with the Denver school system, have crafted new policies that have a more refined system for discipline, trying to avoid suspension or expulsion in all but the most extreme cases.

“The offense should match the consequence, so it doesn’t just suspend automatically,” Martinez says. “We try to intervene after the first offense, get people to talk so that they learn the impact of the behavior and get them to take responsibility for their actions. We find those are better approaches.”

Suspensions and expulsions have declined dramatically at the Denver public schools, and the school’s policy, like L.A.’s, now includes a commitment to rolling back police presence. Its advocacy efforts also helped overturn Colorado’s zero tolerance laws in 2012.

“It’s just a better, healthier climate, students feel more comfortable,” Martinez says. A new agreement with the Denver public schools requires explanations for expulsions and suspensions, as well as a review process, even though many of the disparities still remain.

Sitting down at the table with administrators and questioning their management isn’t always comfortable, but Martinez believes it’s desperately needed for any real improvements to the many issues caused by zero tolerance.

“We all had to be prepared for negotiations, there’s a lot of back and forth,” Martinez says. “We have to have accountability, and we have regular meetings with the school about the progress. We need to have that check and balance.”

But that accountability, that refusal to give carte blanche to any part of a system “is the proper thing to do,” he says and particularly important to set a very different example for the next generation than the one offered by zero tolerance.

“We need to have students comfortable with challenging authority, know[ing] why, and be[ing] prepared to negotiate. Those meetings, to make sure we’re all doing what we agreed to, are uncomfortable, but that’s what democracy needs. It’s a beautiful process, an agonizing process, but it’s necessary.”

* * * *

Most of the time when he represents a student, Langberg finds that courts and even disciplinary boards agree that the process and penalties are ridiculous. “They’ll shake their heads and ask me ‘Why is this even here?’” That element, the “this is ridiculous” reaction to the whole zero-tolerance system, is old and widespread, going back to the very first discussions about the policy.

High-stakes testing and the cash from an ever-expanding police presence certainly help fuel it. But perhaps the biggest ally of the zero-tolerance lobby, more so than any single organization, is “a culture of fear,” in Langberg’s words, that still hasn’t gone away.

“It’s fear about super-predators and schools being dangerous, it’s really escalated since Columbine,” he says. “Now you’ve got Newtown and more calls for a tough on crime approach. Our legislators are elected, our school boards are elected, no one wants to seem soft…they’re making decisions on those myths.”

Working on the legislative side of these issues, Sapp says the ACLU has observed that “the groups that work for these policies generally don’t [do] so publicly, there’s no vocal opposition, but they are very powerful in some cases.”

Earlier this year, a proposed California law would have required school districts with police on campus to have a written agreement specifying their role and expectations, and the ACLU was among the groups supporting it. The bill got gutted. “We still don’t know exactly why or how or who, but we know it was the police lobby,” Sapp says. “There’s money here, it’s funding and positions for a department, and any threat to limit revenue to an agency will bring out a very negative reaction.” In this too, there are strange allies. “The whole racial disparity part, that can be dismissed as a bunch of anecdotes,” Sapp says. “The idea that the policy itself is the problem is a hard sell, even among some fairly progressive folks. There are a lot of strong supporters of these programs among moderate and liberal politicians as well. That’s one of the biggest obstacles.”

After Newtown, the NRA supported a massive increase in school policing. So did gun-control maven Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “There’s a very intuitive appeal of 'kids just got shot, let’s put a whole bunch of police there,'” Sapp says.


Like most tragedies, why zero tolerance came to be is entirely understandable at the human level. There were real issues with school and teacher safety. At first, harsher but fairer rules seemed like an appealing option. But the reality of such authority, combined with a culture of fear, prejudice and a refusal to tackle the difficult issues of poverty and neglect, have created a nearly generation-long nightmare for thousands of students.

So here we are. My peers and I, at the older end of the Millennial spectrum, vaguely remember an era when things weren’t quite so severe or paranoid. Most of the people I contacted, even the ones who suffered brutality and harassment, managed to come out fine. They got jobs, got married, went on with their lives. After everything he went through, for example, Brown says he feels like he’s on a firm foundation. He’s married, and has had a good job at UPS for over a decade. He still writes horror stories.

But even though many efforts to combat zero-tolerance policies have succeeded, millions of students have still come of age in a system in which they are automatically suspect on a whim. Millions of teachers and administrators, already fearful for their own futures, have been taught to operate this way. Tanner notes that many aspects of increased school security are now just the Way Things Are.

“I don’t even know, as an educator, what it was like before Columbine, it’s what I was told the first day I walked in the building.”

Stories of arbitrary punishments still hit the media each day, and there is inevitably general shock when criminal charges are thrown into the mix.

Earlier this year, Kiera Wilmot, 16, a straight-A student at Bartow High School in Florida, had her pre-school science experiment go wrong, resulting in a small explosion that blew the cap off a water bottle. She was charged with discharging a weapon on school grounds and with discharging a destructive device. Threatened with expulsion, she was also due to be tried as an adult. According to local press, school authorities issued the following statement, in the familiar grim, formal language of zero tolerance:

“Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a serious breach of conduct. In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules. We urge our parents to join us in conveying the message that there are consequences to actions. We will not compromise the safety and security of our students and staff.”

Notice there is no sense of context, just a jump to severity, to crush a perceived threat under rules made to supposedly derail bombers, not would be scientists.

After national outcry, Wilmot, who is African-American, was instead suspended for 10 days and sent to an alternative school. The charges were dropped. Wilmot is now heading to space camp, after a NASA veteran sponsored her, because the incident reminded him of the time he nearly started a forest fire in the 1950s. Fortunately, he got off with a warning. There are similar cases of using the zero-tolerance system to throw the book at a student for other reasons, like the 18-year-old, also in Florida, who was in a lesbian relationship. In February this year, her girlfriend’s parents got her charged with a felony and expelled from her high school. Cases of students suspended or expelled for criticizing their schools or teachers on Facebook are legion.

* * * *

In Columbine’s aftermath, the feds got involved trying to determine what had caused the tragedy. The Secret Service, the FBI, and the Department of Justice all investigated various aspects of the incident, school safety, and bullying. Tellingly, many of their conclusions directly contradicted popular perceptions— the same perceptions that had fed into overzealous application of zero tolerance policies.

A 2000 analysis by the Secret Service of 37 school shootings found that zero tolerance likely wouldn’t do shit to prevent another Columbine; expulsion for a more minor infraction might actually trigger them to return. Ditto for metal detectors and bag searches: by the time they went on a rampage, school shooters didn’t make any attempt to hide their weapons. A 2002 analysis with the Department of Education concluded that shooters didn’t have any reliable profile. Klebold and Harris didn’t suddenly go crazy, either: they’d planned the murders out for over a year, in extreme detail (luckily they turned out to be horrible with explosives, or many more would have died).

They weren’t really goths either, it turned out, and they didn’t like Marilyn Manson. When it came to bullying, they were more predators than prey: their diaries record their pride in picking on “fags” and lower class students.

As for the Satanic angle, Scott happened to be outside when Klebold and Harris started their rampage, and that was the reason she was shot first. Cassie Bernall was taunted before she was killed with many others inside the high school’s library but it was insane rambling, not anything coherent, and not about religion.

The killers actually had the “god” exchange with a different student, Valeen Schnurr, whom they left unharmed. This didn’t stop evangelical musicians and writers from making bank off Bernall’s “martyrdom.” The two were more aggressively racist than anti-religious, calling an African-American student, Isaiah Shoels, a nigger before killing him. Somehow, that part never entered the popular mythology.

There was, belatedly, some admission of these many oversights by some of the same media that helped spread the hype in the first place. As the tenth anniversary of Columbine rolled around, USA Today ran “the real story behind Columbine,” acknowledging that:

“A decade after Harris and Klebold made Columbine a synonym for rage, new information—including several books that analyze the tragedy through diaries, e-mails, appointment books, videotape, police affidavits and interviews with witnesses, friends and survivors— indicate that much of what the public has been told about the shootings is wrong.” But ten years after the massacre, if there had ever been any hope of providing some counterweight to the mentality that had developed in the aftermath, it was already far too late.

* * * *

After the Newtown shooting, Tanner’s administrators called her to an emergency staff meeting. Their elementary school already requires a sign-in, a police presence, lock-down drills, pass stickers for visitors, and a buzz-in system for entry. “We had to consider where there’s any fault or weakness in security. We wanted to know if it could happen to us.” I asked her if this reaction is a sign of a healthy culture.

“No, we’re in constant fear. We freak out, that’s not only Columbine, it’s not just Sandy Hook. It’s 9/11, it’s the security you go through at the airport, it’s the feeling something could happen at any time.”

She pauses for a moment.

“It’s not healthy, it’s not happy, but I’m at the point now where I’m not sure what it would be like if we didn’t think that way.”

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.