Zero Tolerance

'Zero Tolerance' School Policies Are Dumb, But Are They Racist?

Zero tolerance policies are bad, willy-nilly expulsions are bad, abjectly racial policies are bad-but federal education mandates are also (often) bad.

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Crying
D. Sharon Pruitt / Wikimedia Commons

"Zero tolerance" school policies are rightly despised by libertarians, who see perfectly well-behaved children being harshly punished for harmless mistakes and inoffensive behavior—such as accidentally bringing a tackle box to school or folding a piece of paper into a vague gun-like shape.

Lawmakers in some states are smartly easing up on the codification of such policies, which force school districts to suspend and even expel students over trivial slights. Even the Obama administration has recommended reducing them.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has also instructed schools to stop disciplining students at all if such punishments have a "disparate impact" on minority students. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights Division's "Dear Colleague" letter from earlier this year:

The administration of student discipline can result in unlawful discrimination based on race in two ways: first, if a student is subjected to different treatment based on the student's race, and second, if a policy is neutral on its face—meaning that the policy itself does not mention race—and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race….

Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race.

The letter was poorly received by many education experts. For one thing, it's actually quite vague. Who determines whether a disparate impact is "justified"? Surely it will be difficult for teachers to maintain classroom order if punishing children for actual misbehavior could trigger a civil rights lawsuit under the "disparate impact" philosophy.

Nevertheless, Dr. Andre Perry wrote in The Washington Post yesterday that the letter has the right idea:

The real reason to stop expulsions is that, in the noble cause of closing the black-white achievement gap, schools are insidiously giving up on black children by expelling those who are considered not ready to learn. While zero-tolerance expulsions myopically help the school and the majority of students in it, they destroy the student—and, ultimately, the community, too.

Zero-tolerance policies have many allies. Parents are often the most ardent supporters. (If a kid injured your son or daughter, you'd want expulsion, too.) Moreover, teachers and principals will tell you that ridding the school of disruptive behaviors accelerates achievement for the overwhelming majority of its students. Educational leaders embrace no-tolerance policies on the ground that they provide the greatest good for the greatest number. …

That doesn't mean Obama's conceit is flawless. It is important for schools to be able to credibly threaten reprisals for the malcontents. Some behaviors do warrant out-of-school time: Weapons and schools don't mix. Fighting may require separating a child from the school to assess and calm a situation.

I get the sense that Perry is lumping many different policies together under the banner of zero tolerance. Schools should stop kicking kids out of class for dumb reasons—the quintessential example is the "chewed Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun" incident. All students should be safe from this kind of nonsense, regardless of their skin color.

It's a little more problematic for the federal government to broadly mandate that school districts move away from all punishments that have a "disparate impact" on racial minorities, however. For instance, suppose a school maintained a policy of suspending students who were late to class three times. If that policy impacted one racial group more than another, it could run into trouble with OCR, even if it was enforced "evenhandedly" against anyone who violated it.

Now, I happen to agree that school administrators use the weapons of suspension and expulsion all too readily. That reality is particularly harmful to minorities, as Perry points out. But broad federal recommendations against all rules that cause disparate impact seem likely to erode local autonomy and could provoke unintended consequences, such as toxic classroom environments.

In short, zero tolerance policies are bad, willy-nilly expulsions are bad, abjectly racial policies are bad—but federal education mandates are also (often) bad.

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  1. 99% of the time “disparate impact” is PC bullshit. The assumption is that all ethnic groups all equal in all behaviors, which is manifestly untrue, and thus any punishments for bad behavior that are not statistically equally distributed must be “racist.”

    1. all ethnic groups [are?] all equal in all behaviors

      You mean cultures, right?

      1. Not sure what difference that makes. Are blacks in America an ethnic group or a culture? In either case, Eric Holder et al. will claim that if black males are disproportionately kicked out of schools for disruptive behavior, the only possible explanation is racism.

        1. The difference is that ethnicity is innate and culture is taught. If I took you from your mother shortly after you were born and sent you to China to be raised, would your ethnicity change? Of course not. But what language would you speak? Would you be more comfortable with a fork and knife or with chopsticks? What religion, if any, would you practice? Do you believe you would still hold the same views on self-reliance, individual liberty, competition, equality of opportunity, ingenuity, etc.?

          And to your first question, the answer is one ethnic group, but at least two cultures. Thomas Sowell wrote a whole book on the topic: Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Pick it up if you find it cheap, you might enjoy it.

          1. So now “ethnicity” means “race”, and “culture” means “ethnicity.” It seems the euphemism treadmill is accelerating.

            1. Err…no. Race means race, ethnicity means ethnicity, and culture means culture.

              Not my fault you played hooky during English class.

              1. sure, sparky

                1. Let me spell it out for you since you’re insisting on an idiosyncratic definition for those terms. White Irish American. White is a racial classifier. Irish is a ethnic classifier. American is a cultural classifier, unless you’re one of those idiots who thinks listening to the Dropkick Murphys while drinking Guinness in a Boston bar makes you culturally “Irish”.

                  1. If I took you from your mother shortly after you were born and sent you to China to be raised, would your ethnicity change? Of course not.

                    White Irish American. White is a racial classifier. Irish is a ethnic classifier. American is a cultural classifier

                    This is just bizarre.

        2. Ethnicity is to some degree constructed and malleable, but over an extremely long stretch. Culture is taught and practiced, and is socially reinforced rather than innate. The latter tends to change significantly over time; the former has more fixity. For example, “African American” has been an ethnicity since ~1800, but the cultures within that ethnicity have been numerous and dominant cultural traits within the ethnicity have changed far more than the actual ethnicity itself (and its definition) has, even so far as to be unrecognizable as compared to 100 years ago.

      2. I think he probably means ethnic groups, given that those are where the relevant genetic differences in behavior exist.

        And, you know, it’s what he said.

  2. The achievement gap could be ended with a few hammer blows to the heads of white kids. And that’s about the best idea that’s ever been floated.

  3. Ironically, one of the reason that zero-tolerance policies were instituted in the first place was to eliminate the opportunity for discretion that, it was argued, was resulting in heavier penalties on minority students than those imposed on white students committing the same offense.

    1. Ha, that was also one reason for mandatory minimum sentencing. It’s amusing how much “reform” consists of reversing earlier “reforms.”

  4. Heh, I predicted that zero-tolerance for pop-tart guns would be replaced by slaps on the wrist for real disruption.

    “While zero-tolerance expulsions myopically help the school and the majority of students in it”

    You mean, the students who *want* to learn? Yeah, why cater to that crowd? Check your privilege!

  5. Dumb, racist, sexist, ageist. All of em.

  6. “That reality is particularly harmful to minorities…”

    The reality that black kids reach adolescence 1 or 2 years before their white classmates is particularly harmful to blank-slate theorists.

    Now that I’ve unbosomed myself of that pearl of wisdom, my six yo’s best buddy is a black kid. And I’m just about to tell him the facts of life. Not.

    1. Well, I’m glad you unbosomed yourself, because you had believed a half-truth. While it is true there are differences in onset of puberty by ethnicity, it is not as drastic as you make it out to be. For example, the median age of puberty onset for both White and Asian girls is 9.7 years, for Hispanic girls it is 9.3, and Black girls, 8.8 years of age.

      “Ah-ha! See, there is an inherent racial difference!” one might say; however, it is not that simple. The factors that determine puberty onset are multivariate. While researchers aren’t sure about what is causing the general trend of early puberty onset for all ethnicity, the fact is that the rate of childhood obesity for Black children is a little less than double that of non-Hispanic White children (doi: 10.2337/dc08-9024) And study after study has shown that obesity and precocious puberty are strongly correlated.

      1. It is also important to note that the definition of puberty onset here is defined by breast growth. Researchers have found that the age of menarche hasn’t decreased as much as breast growth. Now, isn’t a shocker to find that obesity is related to the development of fatty tissue deposits on a girl’s chest, and considering that for menarche mean difference between Black girls and White girls is a whopping 3 months (doi: 10.1542/peds.110.4.e43), I would suspect that when examining the role of puberty in cognitive development by ethnicity the difference in puberty onset would be just as insignificant considering the age dispersion of students in an American public school can vary by at least six months, I would estimate.

      2. the median age of puberty onset for both White and Asian girls is 9.7 years, for Hispanic girls it is 9.3, and Black girls, 8.8 years of age.

        Are you shitting me? You’re telling me that half of the Kids These Days hit puberty before they graduate from 4th grade?

        Things have changed since I was in school. A lot.

  7. The only way to avoid what the Education Department defines as disparate impact is to adopt what courts have called racial quotas.

    People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education (1997) struck down a rule that forbade a “school district to refer a higher percentage of minority students than of white students for discipline.” Yet the Obama administration has pressured school districts to adopt such quotas.

    The Education Department has no right to enforce ‘disparate impact’ rules. The Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v. Sandoval (2001) that disparate impact doesn’t violate Title 6, only ‘intentional’ discrimination does. The Education Department claims that while Title VI itself doesn’t reach disparate impact, regulations under it can (an idea that the Supreme Court decision described as ‘strange’ in footnote 6 of its opinion).

    Misconduct rates are not the same for different races. A 2014 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice by criminologists like John Paul Wright found that racial disparities in student discipline result from more frequent misbehavior by blacks, not racism. The study, entitled ‘Prior Problem Behavior Accounts for the Racial Gap in School Suspensions,’concluded that higher black suspension rates are ‘completely accounted for’ by students’ own behavior.

    Ironically, as the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson noted, ‘zero-tolerance policies were adopted in the first place in part as a defense for administrators against disparate-impact charges.’

    1. A 2014 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice by criminologists like John Paul Wright found that racial disparities in student discipline result from more frequent misbehavior by blacks, not racism.

      Those are hate facts. Citing them is racist.

  8. But Are They Racist?

    No, they’re a million times worse.

  9. It sucks royal balls that the only avenue for attacking so many of these shitting laws, contracts, regulations, etc. is through the magic power of crying “racism.” I’m pleased when the individual shit sandwich is eliminated but not with the acceptance of the underlying thought that if it were all peachy-keen equal that the same freedom killing/denying thing in question would be just fine.

  10. Trayvon, that precocious toddler, is dead because when he was caught with burglary tools and someone else’s jewelry at school, he didn’t get sent to Juvenile Detention. The school was ‘scrubbing’ it’s crime statistics.

  11. It’s a little more problematic for the federal government to broadly mandate that school districts move away from all punishments that have a “disparate impact” on racial minorities, however. For instance, suppose a school maintained a policy of suspending students who were late to class three times. If that policy impacted one racial group more than another, it could run into trouble with OCR, even if it was enforced “evenhandedly” against anyone who violated it.

    This is exactly right. The reason to be opposed to a rule is because it’s a bad rule. Once you start opposing rules because of ‘disparate impacts’ you end up getting rid of good rules for no more noble reason than that you’re a fucking coward who is worried about being called a racist.

    Moreover, when you argue against a bad rule by saying it impacts minority groups more frequently, you’re basically granting that bad rule moral authority by saying that it should be abolished for disparate impact purposes rather than because it’s a terrible idea. This carries with it the implication that the law or rule was good but simply resulted in racist outcomes.

    Example: Stop and frisk is evil because it violates fourth amendment rights. Arguing that it’s racist makes it seem like it would be okay if they just frisked everyone evenly. This is bullshit. The abrogation of rights doesn’t become okay just because it’s color blind.

  12. Federal education mandates are only “often” bad???

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