Zero Tolerance

From 1997 to 2007, Police Presence in Schools Increased 55%


Public Domain

For countless students at public schools all over the country, expulsions, arrests, and felony charges have gradually become the norm for slight or even accidental rules infractions. The Wall Street Journal ran an excellent story detailing why and how this became the case.

The problem is a familiar one for Reason readers: Paranoia over school shootings prompted authorities to crack down on perceived criminal activity—consequently, students are dealt unbelievably harsh punishments for things that shouldn't even count as crimes, like writing stories about guns or keeping pocketknives for protection.

A sobering statistic sheds light on the problem: Between 1997 and 2007, the number of police officers patrolling schools increased by 55 percent, according to The Journal. Criminologist James Alan Fox notes that schools dove head-first down a slippery slope:

In recent decades, a new philosophy in law enforcement had been applied to schools. It was "deal with the small stuff so they won't go to the big stuff, and also it sent a strong message of deterrence," said James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of criminology at Boston's Northeastern University.

The zero-tolerance approach started as part of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, Mr. Fox said, but it expanded to other weapons, then to drug contraband and "finally into ordinary violations of school rules, disrespect, skipping. It eventually became an across the board response to discipline."

It's worth mentioning that violence in schools did decline dramatically over the last two decades. I'm not certain how much of that should actually be attributed to police omnipresence, given that violence declined nationwide, not just in schools. But it would be reasonable to think some amount of policing had a positive impact on the extreme end.

That does not justify what's happening now. Today, schools are relatively safe environments for kids; there's no excuse for treating students like prisoners of war. Students are being educated in an environment of absolute non-freedom and petty authoritarianism. Administrators have all the power to ruin their lives over arbitrary enforcement of stupid rules. And the police are always on scene to turn an infraction into a criminal matter:

In Wake County, N.C., Mr. Perry was trying to avoid a water-balloon fight at school when he was taken into custody, according to a complaint filed with the Justice and Education Departments by Legal Aid of North Carolina charging that minority students are disproportionately disciplined. The Education Department is investigating discipline in the school system, a spokesman said.

The teen, his mother and the complaint all agree that authorities didn't identify any criminal activity until Mr. Perry volunteered he had a small pocketknife he had used to carve a tree. "I didn't even know I had a knife. I just threw on my pants that day," he said.

The knife led to a weapons charge and a suspension. The charge was dropped, according to his mother, Lynn Perry. The suspension and time spent at court hearings left him short of the classes he needed to graduate, Ms. Perry said. Now she worries whether he can get into college. "It's been a complete nightmare, and we can't afford to get this stuff expunged," she said.

Not so long ago, it would have been considered perfectly normal, even appropriate, for a teenage boy to carry his pocketknife with him. Now it's a criminal offense that can completely derail a young person's future.

If there is a silverlining to any of this, it's that absurd zero tolerance stories are increasingly turning people against overcriminalization, and a growing coalition of parents, experts, and lawmakers want to roll back the policies.

I recently discussed zero tolerance policies with Cam and Co on NRA News. Watch that interview here.

NEXT: Video: Cop Shoots 'Aggressive' 6-Month-Old Puppy, Gets Paid Leave

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Here in Massachusetts, there is a great deal of panic over children and guns at school.

    Naturally, there was quite an outcry when the Dare officer was introduced to the students and passed around live ammunition for the kids to handle. Many angry letters to the editor were written decrying people carrying guns into the school, and the school board rewrote the policy covering police in the schools. nobody batted an eye.

  2. It’s just that kids today are so rowdy…

  3. The having pigs in the school thing is really weird to me. Cops were essentially unheard of at my school; I think they may have shown up like two times in my four years of high school, and that was for very specific stuff and only a few people even saw them come in and out. Of course this was in the late 80s, well before this dramatic increase. I just can’t imagine what it would have been like to have pigs strolling around the school, with the threat of arbitrary arrest hanging over you.

    1. And you know they’re creeping on the girls.

    2. Same here – and I never once felt “unsafe”. We did have one or two security guards that everyone was on a first name basis with. This was in a rust-belt ghetto neighborhood that I probably would stay away from today.

    3. That was my experience as well. And I graduated in 1997. Cops only showed up if they needed to arrest someone or if some retard went on a rampage. I just can’t picture police presence being a normal thing in schools.

    4. Canadian experience, early 2000s, but in our high school we had cops with drug dogs come in every couple months to check lockers. As soon as we heard one of their surprise visits were coming there was a lot of people running to the bathrooms to flush their stuff.

      1. So, like jail. That is just unbelievable. There would have been freaking riots in my school. The biggest outrage we ever had to deal with was they wouldn’t let us wear short pants in hot weather. And the students won out on that one.

    5. When I went to high school (35 years ago, in a poor area) I saw police at the school once. I was asked to speak to a school 25 years ago, in an upscale area, and was aghast to see an officer permanently stationed there.

      It just keeps getting worse.

  4. more evidence, as if more was needed, of how the weakest students on any college campus wind up in the school of education. And the ones unable to cut it in college or community college or the military wind up in law enforcement. The lot of them on our dime.

  5. But it would be reasonable to think some amount of policing had a positive impact on the extreme end.

    A more reasonable thought is that the stats are juked.

  6. Not so long ago, it would have been considered perfectly normal, even appropriate, for a teenage boy to carry his pocketknife with him.

    There is a growing subset of the population that regards carrying a pocketknife, even for a grown adult, as somehow suspicious and frightening.

    1. That’s what really amazes me. Fear about people carrying guns is dumb enough. But at least there the gun is undoubtedly a weapon and nothing else. A knife gets used for completely non-threatening purposes every day. How do people open boxes and stuff? I guess just saw away with your keys or something.

      1. I once worked at a warehouse where a supervisor was tired of knife related incidents, so he banned them. People were expected to open boxes with their fingernails and find alternatives for other duties.

        Yeah, didn’t stay around that place for long.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.