Zero Tolerance

A Short, Sad History of Zero-Tolerance School Policies

School is supposed to teach kids to think critically. Instead, they encounter instead a system that is arbitrary, harsh, and ineffective at teaching.

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Daily Beast

Before there was Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old terrorist (read: nerd) who was arrested for bringing an explosive device (read: clock) to a Texas high school, there was Joshua, the seven-year-old Napoleon of Crime who was suspended from his Maryland elementary school for chewing his Pop-Tart into a gun and pointing it at fellow students.

Before Joshua there was Patrick Agin, a Rhode Island high school senior and member in good standing of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who had to sue his school to allow a yearbook picture of him dressed in chain-mail armor and carrying a broadsword. And long before Patrick Agin rode in bureaucratic battle, there was the curious case of the unnamed eighth grader we'll call "Midol Mary". She got booted from her school in Washington state for the unforgiveable crime of giving a non-prescription pain-relief pill to a classmate suffering menstrual cramps.

Listing the undeserving victims of zero-tolerance policies in public K-12 schools yields a genealogy as long, confusing, and endlessly multiplying as any found in the Old Testament or a late-run episode of Honey Boo-Boo.

OK, OK, so zero-tolerance policies—for weapons, drugs, bullying, bad attitudes (seriously)—at K-12 public schools routinely create a kids' version of Fox's Book of Martyrs. What's so bad about that?

For starters, as I explain in a new Daily Beast column, we spend about $12,000 per pupil per year on elementary, middle, and high school kids. That's more tha double in real dollars than in the early 1970s and about the same as tuition at a top-tier public research university. Student achievement level, as measured by the test scores of graduating seniors, hasn't budged in 40 years. And then there's this:

Leilani E. Martin Cardoza

Traditional schools have never been known for their celebration or nurturing of the human spirit. Indeed, decades—even centuries!—of novels, plays, movies, songs, and other forms of creative expression attest to the stultifying effect of conventional pedagogy based on a factory model borne of the Industrial Revolution. In this sense, zero-tolerance policies are nothing new. They are simply the latest way in which schools always prize order over education.

And this much seems certain: "The research findings and other data on zero tolerance suggest that these policies—which have been in force for 25 years—have no real benefit and significant adverse effects." That's from a 2013 study published by the Vera Institute of Justice, which also notes that "only five percent of serious disciplinary actions nationally in recent years involve possession of a weapon."

About 20 percent of middle- and high-schoolers are suspended in a given year for some reason or another. In Texas, over half of all kids are suspended at least once while doing time between grades seven and 12. Boys are punished about twice as often as girls and blacks and Hispanics about 50 percent more often than whites.

Schools started getting serious about "zero tolerance" first with drugs in the late '80s, then with weapons in the mid-'90s after the Gun-Free Schools Zone Act. Over 75 percent of school districts have a zero-tolerance policy about something and they keep on issuing new diktat without ever assessing whether the policies actually reduce violence or chaos and aid education.

The most-common verdict by people who study them? Zero-tolerance policies have no effect, other than to teach our kids that authority is stupid, arbitrary, and harsh. That's a life lesson that's well worth learning, but not at school.

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18 responses to “A Short, Sad History of Zero-Tolerance School Policies

  1. “School is supposed to kids to think critically.” Lol wut?

    1. Excuse Nick. He went to school. I think he left out “punish”.

      Seriously, compulsory school was NEVER in the history of man ever devised to train kids to think critically. The kids who can (classified by school systems as “future leaders”) either get isolated into classrooms to prevent them from mingling with the other residents of the bell curve, or get beaten into submission. The kids who CAN think critically still get fed shit tons of statist propaganda, but the state just has to work harder on them.

  2. Is the byline supposed to be an example of it’s own point?

    1. It is.

      *stares*

  3. About 20 percent of middle- and high-schoolers are suspended in a given year for some reason or another. In Texas, over half of all kids are suspended at least once while doing time between grades seven and 12.

    Holy crap. Back in the day (late ’70s/early ’80s) there was a pretty small handful of suspensions in my rather strict small town Texas junior and high schools. If it was 10%, I’d be surprised.

    1. In the small Texas high school I went to in the early ’60s, I don’t remember anyone ever being suspended. On the other hand, they were still making a somewhat liberal use of the paddle.

  4. No one needs two broadswords.

    1. We need broadsword control NOW!!!!

  5. Before Joshua there was Patrick Agin, a Rhode Island high school senior and member in good standing of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who had to sue his school to allow a yearbook picture of him dressed in chain-mail armor and carrying a broadsword.

    What happened to the “read: nerd” on this one?

    1. That’d be a dork, not a nerd.

  6. About 20 percent of middle- and high-schoolers are suspended in a given year for some reason or another. In Texas, over half of all kids are suspended at least once while doing time between grades seven and 12.

    Astonishing. I’d no idea. Really. Everything’s been anecdotes, often amusing, often infuriating, but now that I see numbers…just unreal. When I was in school, suspensions were very rare, certainly compared to this.

    I see a big problem there in that suspensions may have turned the routine corner in becoming so routine that they’re no big deal, thereby routinely encouraging schools to deal them routinely. Instead…well, you know, instead.

    1. “About 20 percent of middle- and high-schoolers are suspended in a given year for some reason or another.”

      Yeah, but while the local public school is sending kids home, they make up for it with all the reverse-suspended homeschoolers whom the parents send to the local school as punishment.

  7. This my friend is why we roll with it all the time.

    http://www.Full-Anon.tk

  8. “…decades?even centuries!?of…songs…attest to the stultifying effect of conventional pedagogy”

    “Ach, excuse the Hell outta of me for carin’ about the bairns’ health. I dinna want them to gorge on sweets, but tae have a balanced diet, with a nice servin’ of meat with every servin’ of pudding. That does nae make me a monster!”

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  10. If our youth don’t learn in school “that authority is stupid, arbitrary, and harsh,” where would you have them learn it?! Think of the children?oh, wait.

  11. You left out one of my favorites, the sixth grader suspended for a year for possession of a maple leaf.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/
    news/wonk/wp/2015/03/16/
    virginia-school-suspends-an-11
    -year-old-for-one-year-over-a-
    leaf-that-wasnt-marijuana/

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