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.


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.