Developments in New York City schools are giving us hope that Zero Tolerance policies are starting to become a thing of the past.
Last year, The New York Times presented a short documentary by Retro Report covering the history of the zero tolerance policy and some of the central figures behind it.
The video features news footage from the 80’s and 90’s when public schools were reeling from gang-related violence. These images, along with the recollections revealed in the interviews with several educators and policymakers, remind us how a severe policy like zero tolerance could become a reality.
Zero Tolerance came about because educators, policymakers, and parents all across the nation were scared and feeling vulnerable.
Former attorney general when zero tolerance was first enacted, Eric Holder, Jr. gave some context to why the policy was enacted.
“There was a real concern,” Mr. Holder acknowledged to Retro Report, “that we were just losing control as a society.”
Out of the fear of losing control of a generation of violent teenagers, law makers began enacting legislation that would inexorably tie the nation’s school systems to its corrections system for the next 20 years.
When Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, schools receiving federal money were required to expel kids bringing weapons to school for at least one year. These extreme measures were intended to rid the schools of armed youngsters, thereby keeping the good kids safe.
But Zero Tolerance just didn’t—and doesn’t—work.
In an appearance before a Senate subcommittee in 2012, Steven C. Teske, the chief judge of juvenile court in Clayton County, GA., made it clear that zero tolerance just wasn’t working.
“Zero tolerance as a philosophy and approach is contrary to the nature of adolescent cognition,” he told a Senate subcommittee in 2012. For all the arrests, suspensions and expulsions that he had observed, “school safety did not improve,” he said. If anything, “the juvenile crime rate in the community significantly increased.”
Besides not working, Zero Tolerance began to go much further than guns, knives, and drugs.
Eventually, even minor infractions such as kicking trash cans or bringing toy guns to school, became reasons for expulsion… and sometimes arrest.
The out-of-control exclusionary disciplines created something no one intended—the school-to-prison pipeline.
The pipeline refers to the tragic cycle of youths that end up quitting school altogether after being kicked out of school or incarcerated for long periods of time. These students are more likely to end up in the juvenile corrections system and eventually, the adult penal system.
A fundamental flaw in zero tolerance is that it removes troubled students from the very social environment where they can get the help they need.
According to The New York Times article, Judge Teske diagnosed these delinquent adolescents as missing something that only a caring school system can offer.
“These kids lost one of the greatest protective buffers against delinquency—school connectedness.”
Being surrounded by a positive school climate gives students the “connectedness” they need to develop emotionally into healthy, successful adults. Zero tolerance may have cleared schools of troublemakers, but it also cleared out any friends troubled students had. In doing so, the exclusionary policy created a negative environment in which troubled students couldn’t improve.
But thankfully today, the trend is moving in the right direction.
Thanks to the influence of people like former attorney general, Eric Holder, Jr., and Judge Teske, New York City schools are changing their disciplinary policies evidence-based programs like Restorative Justice. More than simply being less harsh, these policies are working.
No public school system in the country is bigger than New York City’s, with 1.1 million students. It, too, has moved away from harsh discipline as an automatic response. Suspensions in the second half of 2015 were down by one-third from the same period the year before.
At the same time, safety improved. Major crimes — like rape, felony assault, burglary and robbery — were reported at their lowest level since the police started tracking them in 1998.
It’s not easy to change decades-old policies or face long-held fears. But as policymakers, educators, and school districts turn away from extremely reactionary discipline policies like zero tolerance, we’ll see more and more schools creating positive school climates and improved student achievement.
Source: The New York Times.