The airport security line at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field was as long as I have ever seen it yesterday.  It stretched from the central hallway of Terminal One, past the baggage claim area, up the escalator, across the footbridge to the southeast parking and halfway down I-5 to National City.

Well maybe not that far.

But it was the expected overreaction to one Nigerian douchebag who tried to launch a rocket from his briefs to bring down the very airplane he was sitting on, and instead lit himself up like a silvery flare. Overreaction is a political calculation designed to confuse systemic bravado with actual security.  It’s what we do. And so we stand in line.

It is the same mindset that has fueled the sweeping logic of “zero tolerance” in public schools all across America.  After a series of tragic assaults from Santana to Columbine, administrators and legislators decided to actively pursue a policy of zero tolerance for weapons or violence– or even just persistently obnoxious behavior.  So kids that brought a loaded “glock” to school got themselves expelled.  As did kids who brought unloaded guns.  Or long knives.  Or swiss army knives. Or butter knives for their box lunch.  Or the nail file that their mom had given them.  And pretty soon zero tolerance reached to laser pointers and paint brushes and swizzle sticks.

There is no doubt that the first job of educators is to keep children safe, but zero tolerance polices have become so draconian, that the number of suspensions and expulsions have skyrocketed in virtually every urban center of America.  (An article in District Administration: The Magazine of School District Management states that while current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan headed the Chicago schools, expulsions ballooned from 32 to 3,000 in the ten years between 1995 and 2005!).  Many of the students who were “zero tolerated” out of the schoolhouse door… never made it back. And this is because such a disproportionate number of zero tolerance suspensions and expulsions  are children of color and kids who lack the resources to solicit proper legal representation.  And since public school students are often treated as if they are protected by a different constitution than the adults who are supposedly protecting them, violations of their due process rights are sometimes not even called into question.  After all, that is zero tolerance.

So what have we accomplished with metal detectors and security guards and armed teachers and district policies void of not only tolerance– but also judgment?  For sure, some juvenile offenders have been caught or found out or at least deterred.  But on the whole, we have made school campuses much less safe.  Instead of safe havens, we have created green zones.  Bunkers.

Just as the “war on terror” is partly a war on terror and partly a war against individual freedoms, enforcing zero tolerance has too often violated students’ individual rights in the name of campus security.  The consequence of which is mistrust and oppositional behavior.  And sometimes more violence.

Jim Freeman, the project director of the “Stop the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Project in Washington, D.C., works with urban districts to change these kinds of codes and policies. The stated mission of Freeman’s organization is:

“To end the use of school policies that push young people out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Through research and analysis of school discipline data and policies, communication strategies, and policy advocacy, we are eliminating the needless exclusion of young people from their schools through the use of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.”

Freeman cites a landmark study in 2006 by the American Psychological Association that alerted districts that the zero tolerance logic was flawed.

“While the standard claim was that zero-tolerance policies would improve school safety, the schools were no safer than before zero tolerance.  What the report showed was that zero-tolerance policies turned schools into inhospitable environments that didn’t promote school safety.”

recent article by Ron Schachter suggests that a degree of both compassion and discretion have returned.  There are alternatives to suspension and expulsion.  There are better ways to pre-empt student behaviors that could lead to more serious consequences. Those alternatives are having huge positive effects in major urban districts including LA Unified and Denver Public Schools: decreasing office referrals, suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, while increasing academic achievement.

More and more districts are recognizing that their zero tolerance policies do not connect kids to their school.  If instead, children are provided opportunities to reflect on their mistakes, to “right their wrongs”, and to insure their classmates and teachers that they can be trusted…  tremendous growth is possible.  Offenders give back.  Restorative Justice.

Think about that as you wait in line for TSA to complete their full body scan on your next flight to Sacramento.


Filed under gun violence, public education, Uncategorized, zero tolerance policies

5 responses to “ZERO IN-TOLERANCE

  1. I could not agree more! Zero tolerance as a policy just allows educators to NOT have to make some tough decisions and do their jobs. As I have done behavior contracts and currently speak in classrooms almost every day I see this up close and personal.

    There is a big difference between a kid with no history of violence and no access to weapons yelling “I’m going to kill you” in a moment of rage and a student with a history of violence and access to weapons yelling the same thing. Both statements should have consequences, but they should not be the same consequence. Just like there is a difference between a young child pointing a finger gun at a kid on the playground playing cops and robbers is different than a known violent offender pointing a finger gun at someone as an actual threat.

    I am all for making the jobs of educators and administrators as easy as possible, but not at the cost of fairness and justice for all students.

  2. tifftwin17

    I remember kids getting suspended in elementary school for bringing slap bracelets to school. The school board’s reasoning:

    “Slap bracelets encourage students to commit acts of violence to others and to themselves. The bracelet’s cover can be cut off and the sides of the bracelet filed to sharp edges and used in place of a razor blade for cutting deep into the skin and drawing blood.”

    The same was said for laser pointers (still in elementary school): “The seemingly intended use for these laser pointers and other light devices is not only to distract other students, but to cause permanent damage to the eyes of faculty as well.”

    Other examples of banned and expellable items: flip-flops, keychains, earrings that dangled, temporary tattoos and hemp necklaces. If they couldn’t imagine a far off world where 7-yr-olds fashioned shanks out of the item, they made up rumors of things being laced with drugs.

    We couldn’t wear shirts with numbers on them because it was a “gang issue”. This made it impossible to find anything to wear to school. The fad at the time was the numbers on shirts and everywhere from Wal-Mart to American Eagle to You-Name-It had it on their clothing.

    A good friend of mine was expelled for making a list of names. The list was people she was going to invite to her BIRTHDAY PARTY! But a teacher saw it, didn’t give her a chance to explain, called the cops and she never came back to school. She never got to have that party either.

    I agree with you. There is a difference between keeping children safe and creating animosity between them and the school system. When children are scared out of their minds or frustrated beyond the point of no return, the school fails. It has gone from being a safe haven and a place for education and quickly become a mental hospital or war zone. They might as well put all the kids in straightjackets and padded rooms… To see that the system has come to a place where they no longer provide children with the faith, trust, support and learning they need is a sad, sad thing to realize.

    Great article! Kudos.

    • Thanks for your comment. Your story about the kid with the list is heartbreaking… and I know it happens. So many kids have been expelled in the name of keeping other children (and staff) safe… and it truly does create, instead, a hostile environment.

  3. We don’t need to profile!

    We don’t need to profile. At the Center for Aggression Management, we use easily-applied, measurable and culturally-neutral body language and behavior exhibited by people who intend to perpetrate a terrorist act. This unique methodology utilizes proven research from the fields of psychology, medicine and law enforcement which, when joined together, identify clear, easily-used physiologically-based characteristics of individuals who are about to engage in terrorist activities in time to prevent their Moment of Commitment.

    Since the foiled terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national on Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit, the President has repeatedly stated that there has been a systemic failure as he reiterates his commitment to fill this gap in our security. This incident, like the Fort Hood shooting, exemplifies why our government must apply every valid preventative approach to identify a potential terrorist.

    The myriad methods to identify a terrorist, whether “no-fly list,” “explosive and weapons detection,” mental illness based approaches, “profiling” or “deception detection” – all continue to fail us. Furthermore, the development of deception detection training at Boston Logan Airport demonstrated that the Israeli methods of interrogation will not work in the United States.

    All media outlets are discussing the need for profiling of Muslim Arabs, but profiling does not work for the following three reasons:

    1. In practice, ethnic profiling tells us that within a certain group of people there is a higher probability for a terrorist; it does not tell us who the next terrorist is!

    2. Ethnic profiling is contrary to the value our society places on diversity and freedom from discrimination based on racial, ethnic, religious, age and/or gender based criteria. If we use profiling it will diminish our position among the majority of affected citizens who support us as a beacon of freedom and liberty.

    3. By narrowing our field of vision, profiling can lead to the consequence of letting terrorists go undetected, because the terrorist may not be part of any known “profile worthy” group – e.g., the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh

    Our unique methodology for screening passengers can easily discern (independently of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, age, and gender) the defining characteristics of human beings who are about to engage in terrorist acts.

    The question is when will our government use true “hostile intent” through the “continuum of aggressive behavior” to identify potential terrorists? Only when observers focus specifically on “aggressive behavior” do the objective and culturally neutral signs of “aggression” clearly stand out, providing the opportunity to prevent these violent encounters. This method will not only make all citizens safer, but will also pass the inevitable test of legal defensibility given probable action by the ACLU.

    As our Government analyzes what went wrong regarding Abdulmatallab’s entrance into the United States, you can be assured that Al Qaeda is also analyzing how their plans went wrong. Who do you think will figure it out first . . . ?

    Visit our blog at where we discuss the shooting at Fort Hood and the attempted terrorist act on Flight 253.

    • I agree… 100%. There is a better way to pre-empt attacks than denying the basic tenets of American democracy to appease our collective paranoia. Your continuum of aggressive behavior makes perfect sense. But not just for the tSA baggage screeners… for the airline crew too. After all, underwear gut sat on an airplane from Nigeria to Amsterdam (8 hours?) then to Detroit (another 8 hours?). In all that time he was sitting among people he intended to murder. Allegedly. He knew they were all going to die. In all of that time… weren’t there some tell-tale behaviors that a trained crew could read? Agitation? Pacing? Sweating?

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