Zero tolerance policies do more harm than good
Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 23:09
Earlier this month, Hunter Spain, a student at Dinwiddie High School in Dinwiddie, Va. was disciplined for wearing a shirt that, according to school officials, “was threatening to other kids.” The shirt in question featured Si Robertson, a character from the A&E series “Duck Dynasty” clenching his fist, along with one of his catch phrases, “I will hurt you physically and metaphysically.” Although Spain had no intention of hurting anyone at the school and was just referencing his favorite TV show, he was disciplined under the school’s zero tolerance policy against threatening messages.
This is part of a very disturbing trend of zero tolerance policies across the country. Although Spain was allowed to change his shirt and resume his studies, many students face lengthy suspension or even expulsion, as well as criminal charges, for relatively minor offenses under these misguided policies. Of course, being expelled or arrested significantly harms the future of these young students, making them more likely to commit actions that actually harm themselves and those around them once they become adults.
In March, Josh Welch, a second grader in Maryland, was innocently eating a Pop-Tart in class. As he later explained, “All I was trying to do was turn it into a mountain.” Unfortunately for Josh, it didn’t look like a mountain, but like a gun. This earned him a two-day suspension for “using food to make a threatening gesture,” and a permanent mark on his academic record. His family tried to get the record expunged, but the appeal was denied.
Ten years from now, when Welch is applying to colleges, they will see that he was suspended and may be reluctant to accept him. Lack of college education will affect his ability to get a respectable job. His entire future may be ruined because of how he chewed his Pop-Tart when he was in second grade. Faced with limited possibilities, he may struggle to get by and resort to committing actual crimes when he is an adult. If the school had instead simply confiscated the Pop-Tart and moved on with the day as normal, Josh would not be facing serious consequences for the rest of his life.
Some students face not only in-school disciplinary action but criminal charges as a result of relatively minor infractions. For instance, an unnamed high school student in Louisiana was recently arrested and charged with terrorizing and interfering with the operation of a school. For such serious charges, his offense was relatively minor. He used the Real Strike iPhone app to take video which simulated him “shooting” other students and then uploaded it to YouTube. The student told police he had absolutely no intention of hurting anyone. He said he was just frustrated about being bullied and needed to take out his anger. Nevertheless, he is now facing serious charges and is currently in a juvenile detention center.
What is most disturbing about the last incident is that law enforcement arrested him not because they believed he was a threat at the moment, but because “(they) don’t know at what time that game becomes reality.” By that same logic, everyone who plays first-person shooter games should be preemptively arrested because they “might” actually go on a shooting spree at some point in the future. Law enforcement considered the student a threat to the school because there was some small possibility that his simulated smartphone app video might someday become a reality. He received the same discipline that students who posed very real, serious, threats to the school would have faced. The school and law enforcement should handle these things on a case-by-case basis, rather than using blanket policies of zero tolerance. Of course, with serious charges on his criminal record, his chances of ever getting into college or getting a good job are completely ruined. This makes it more likely that when he gets out of the detention center he will resort to real crimes.
Zero tolerance policies do not help make schools safer by stopping imaginary threats. Instead, suspending students for trivial offenses causes them fall behind, making them more likely to drop out and eventually turn to real crime. This is what the ACLU terms the “school-to-prison pipeline.” These zero tolerance policies do more harm than good to students and need to be ended.