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.”
A 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.