Dear Commons Community,
Zero tolerance, first grew out of the war on drugs in the 1990s and became more aggressive in the wake of school shootings like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado. Along with this policy came an increase in the number of police officers stationed in schools leading in turn to an increase in suspensions, expulsions and arrests for minor nonviolent offenses. But the trend towards zero-tolerance may be ending as educators question the wisdom of arresting students for minor offenses. As reported in the New York Times:
“…in November, Broward County veered in a different direction, joining other large school districts, including Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago and Denver, in backing away from the get-tough approach.
Rather than push children out of school, districts like Broward are now doing the opposite: choosing to keep law-breaking students in school, away from trouble on the streets, and offering them counseling and other assistance aimed at changing behavior.
These alternative efforts are increasingly supported, sometimes even led, by state juvenile justice directors, judges and police officers.
In Broward, which had more than 1,000 arrests in the 2011 school year, the school district entered into a wide-ranging agreement last month with local law enforcement, the juvenile justice department and civil rights groups like the N.A.A.C.P. to overhaul its disciplinary policies and de-emphasize punishment.
Some states, prodded by parents and student groups, are similarly moving to change the laws; in 2009, Florida amended its laws to allow school administrators greater discretion in disciplining students.
“A knee-jerk reaction for minor offenses, suspending and expelling students, this is not the business we should be in,” said Robert W. Runcie, the Broward County Schools superintendent, who took the job in late 2011. “We are not accepting that we need to have hundreds of students getting arrested and getting records that impact their lifelong chances to get a job, go into the military, get financial aid.”
Nationwide, more than 70 percent of students involved in arrests or referrals to court are black or Hispanic, according to federal data.
“What you see is the beginning of a national trend here,” said Michael Thompson, the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “Everybody recognizes right now that if we want to really find ways to close the achievement gap, we are really going to need to look at the huge number of kids being removed from school campuses who are not receiving any classroom time…”
Juvenile judges were among the first to express alarm over the jump in the number of students appearing in court on misdemeanors, an increase they said is tied to the proliferation of school police officers.
“We started to see the officers as a disciplinary tool,” said Judge Elijah H. Williams of Broward County Circuit Court, a juvenile judge who said he was “no flaming liberal” but saw the need for change. “Somebody writes graffiti in a stall, O.K., you’re under arrest. A person gets caught with a marijuana cigarette, you’re under arrest.”
The move by Broward and other districts to rethink zero tolerance is most appropriate. Subjecting minors to arrests and expulsions do nothing to rehabilitate the children. Zero tolerance simply pushes the students out of schools without providing any meaningful treatment and ends up subjecting them to a lifetime of problems.