Written by John W. Whitehead
Under the guise of protecting and controlling young people, school officials have adopted draconian zero tolerance policies, which punish all offenses severely, no matter how minor. In fact, under the present system of mandatory punishment, an elementary school student is punished in the same way that an adult high school senior is punished. And a student who actually intends to harm others is treated the same as one who breaks the rules accidentally.
School systems began adopting these tough codes after Congress passed the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required a one-year expulsion for any child bringing a firearm or bomb to school. Zero tolerance rules in many states also cover fighting, drug or alcohol use and gang activity, as well as relatively minor offenses such as possessing over-the-counter medications and disrespect of authority. Nearly all American public schools have zero tolerance policies for firearms or other "weapons," and most have such policies for drugs and alcohol.
In the wake of the Columbine school shootings, nervous legislators and school boards further tightened their zero tolerance policies, creating what some critics call a national intolerance for childish behavior. In some jurisdictions, carrying cough drops, wearing black lipstick or dying your hair blue are expellable offenses. As Time magazine reports, "by definition zero tolerance erases distinctions among student offense. Hence the national crackdown on Alka-Seltzer." At least 20 children in four states have been suspended from school for possession of the fizzy tablets in violation of zero tolerance drug policies.
These one-strike-and-you're-out policies have been heavily criticized by such professional organizations as the National Association of School Psychologists: "[R]esearch indicates that, as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices."
Despite mounting criticism, zero tolerance policies have proliferated, creating a vortex that sucks in otherwise innocent children. The public school crime blotter is teeming with examples. For instance, Tawana Dawson, a 15-year-old African-American student at Pensacola High School in Florida, was expelled for the 1999-2000 school year for possession of a "weapon" in violation of the school's zero tolerance policy. The weapon in question was a nail clipper with a 2-inch metal nail file.
In Columbus, Ohio, a second-grader was suspended for drawing a paper gun, cutting it out and pointing it at classmates. A 12-year-old Florida boy was handcuffed and jailed after he stomped in a puddle, splashing classmates. A 13-year-old boy in Manassas, Virginia, who accepted a Certs breath mint from a classmate, was suspended and required to attend drug-awareness classes. Jewish youths in several schools were suspended for wearing the Star of David, which was sometimes used as a symbol of gang membership.
Incidents like these have made zero tolerance policies the subject of great debate and even ridicule. What has become apparent, however, is the fact that zero tolerance policies fail to decrease the number of students bringing weapons to school, victims of violent crime and students trying alcohol, cigarettes and other illegal drugs. As Russell Skiba, an educational psychology professor at Indiana University, observed: "[W]e end up punishing honor students to send a message to bad kids. But the data indicate that the bad kids are not getting the message."
Some zero tolerance cases have made their way into the courts, but the judiciary has done little to rectify what most people would consider to be miscarriages of justice. A common pattern that has emerged in many zero tolerance cases is the judiciary's tendency to allow school bureaucracy to triumph over common sense and the Bill of Rights. Three cases in particular come to mind.
The first case involves a young kindergartner from Sayreville, New Jersey, who was suspended for engaging in a make-believe game of cops and robbers on the school playground (he used his finger as a pretend gun). While the school district claimed to have no official written policy mandating "zero tolerance" of violent behavior or threats, the actions by the Sayreville school officials were consistent with those of many other school districts that have adopted such blanket policies. A lawsuit seeking to have the suspension expunged from the boy's school record made its way through the courts--all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, in fact, only to be dismissed at every turn.
The second case involves a teenager who was arrested for violating a zero tolerance policy against food consumption by eating a french fry in a Washington, D.C., metro. The case eventually reached the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where Justice John Roberts was presiding prior to his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. In handing down a ruling in Hedgepeth v. Washington Metro, Judge Roberts stated that "[n]o one is very happy about the events that led to this litigation." Ansche Hedgepeth, he recounted, "was arrested, searched, and handcuffed. Her shoelaces were removed, and she was transported in the windowless rear compartment of a police vehicle to a juvenile processing center, where she was booked, fingerprinted, and detained until released to her mother some three hours later--all for eating a single french fry in a Metrorail station. The child was frightened, embarrassed, and crying throughout the ordeal." Despite his ability to recognize the harshness of her treatment, Roberts ruled that Ansche's constitutional rights had not been violated in any way.
The last case, and one which the U.S. Supreme Court has now agreed to hear, involves a 13-year-old honor student, Savanna Redding, who was subjected to a horrific strip-search by school officials who suspected the eighth grader of bringing ibuprofen to school. School officials at Safford High School in Arizona "asked me to pull out my bra and move it from side to side," Redding said. "They made me open my legs and pull out my underwear." But no pills were found.
Unfortunately, Redding's case is not an isolated incident. Students throughout the country in urban, suburban and rural schools are being subjected to similar searches in the so-called quest to make the schools safer and drug-free. Indeed, there has been a move in Congress in recent years to legitimize strip searches in schools by teachers and other school staff.
The impact of these draconian zero tolerance policies on our young people cannot be understated: it renders them woefully ignorant of the rights they intrinsically possess as American citizens. What's more, they grow up believing that they have no true rights and government authorities have total power and can violate constitutional rights whenever they see fit. In other words, the schools are teaching our young people how to be obedient subjects in a totalitarian society.
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- John W. Whitehead, President and Founder of The Rutherford Institute
Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.
The Rutherford Institute has emerged as one of the nation's leading advocates of civil liberties and human rights, litigating in the courts and educating the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting individual freedom in the United States and around the world.