By Chris Barts
The 1997-98 school year was a shocking and frightening one, filled with reports of seemingly random violence in communities heretofore immune to such incidents. In the wake of these tragedies, we can expect to hear renewed calls for increasingly severe penalties for any kind of school disruption, a stance that has led to the widespread adoption of so-called zero tolerance discipline policies. These policies, while well intentioned on their face, have caused more problems than they have solved. How? By forcing officials up and down the education and justice systems to abandon their own judgement. Zero tolerance leads to zero common sense.
First, perhaps we should examine the roots of zero-tolerance laws. It began in the military, unsurprisingly, and was a response to suspected drug use in the armed forces. Being tough against drugs is a laudable practice, but things quickly went too far. Too soon civilian law enforcement was picking up on the idea, and a monster was born. The first civilian application of a zero-tolerance practice was regarding drugs in boats off the coast of California. This met with widespread resistance after it was learned that innocent people were being punished on the strength of a minute amount of residue in their watercraft. After two research crafts were impounded because of the discovery of a minute amount of marijuana residue, the laws were quickly abandoned. The problem was zero-tolerance laws resurfaced in another place: Our schools.
In late 1989 California and Kentucky schools adopted a zero-tolerance policy in relation to drugs and gang-related activity. Again, laudable goals but ones implemented in the exact wrong way. By 1993 zero-tolerance was becoming standard around the country's schools. This was a reaction based on fear, not facts.
The facts are simple: Violent offenses barely rate a mention when it comes to statistics. Forty percent of school rule violations are tardiness. A quarter is simple absenteeism. While those are very serious problems, zero-tolerance laws do not address them. Zero-tolerance laws address drug use, gangs, and possession of weapons, which rank at nine percent, five percent, and two percent, respectively. Those laws are akin to using a shotgun to kill a flea: You might get the little bugger, but the collateral damage is not worth it.
And with zero-tolerance laws the collateral damage is awful. A seventeen-year-old shot a rubber band at a classmate in Chicago, May 1998. The poor kid was expelled from school, taken to county jail for seven hours, charged with misdemeanor battery, and officially advised to drop out of school. In Phoenix, a student took a skeet-shooting gun out of his trunk to lend to a friend. Both kids were expelled and charged with misconduct with a firearm. Granted, these students broke the rules. But did the punishment even remotely fit the crime? Of course not. We need sense, not laws.