“Zero Tolerance” Equals “Zero Common Sense”—Plus a Civil Rights Agenda?

Posted by on March 21, 2010

Zero tolerance has increasingly become a topic of discussion and focus following a number of higher-profile anecdotal cases of questionable judgment in the administration of school discipline and/or arrests by police at schools.

I have said that so-called “zero tolerance” has, in too many anecdotal cases, been equated with “zero common sense.”  The vast majority of school administrators strive for firm, fair, and consistent discipline applied with good common sense.  Unfortunately, the common sense part of the equation has been missing in a number of higher-profile school discipline incidents capturing national attention in recent years.

This focus has become intensified by what appears to be an increased activism by civil rights attorneys, advocates, and organizations.  These individuals and groups are zeroed-in on school discipline (“zero tolerance” in particular) and, the roles and actions of school-based law enforcement in our nation’s schools.

Who are some of the players and what are they saying?

  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):  The ACLU’s, “The School-To-Prison Pipeline,” describes what it calls, “…the national trend of criminalizing, rather than educating, our nation’s children.” 
  • The Advancement ProjectThe Advancement Project mission is described as “an innovative civil rights law, policy, and communications “action tank” that advances universal opportunity and a just democracy for those left behind in America.”
    • The Advancement Project runs the Stop the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track  program.  An overview of the project says, “Harsh school policies and practices and an increased role of law enforcement in schools have combined to create a “schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track,” in which out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests are increasingly used to deal with student misbehavior, especially for minor incidents, and huge numbers of children and youth are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. This is more than an education crisis; it is a racial justice crisis because the students pushed out through harsh discipline are disproportionately students of color.”  In addition to its national campaign, the site says the program offers tools to local community organizations and grassroots organizers.
    • The Advancement Project recently released a report entitled, “Test, Punish, and Push Out: How Zero Tolerance and High-Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School-to-Prison Pipeline
    • The Advancement Project previously released an Action Kit for obtaining public records and mapping data related to school discipline, arrests, school-based police, and related information.
    • The Advancement Project has a number of other publications.
    • The Advancement Project provides model policies and model legislation related to its mission.
  • The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.  The Institute for Race and Justice operates a program entitled, “Redirecting the School to Prison Pipeline.” 
    • The Institute for Race and Justice is a led by distinguished Professor Charles Ogletree Jr., Executive Director and Founder of the Institute which opened in September of 2005.  Professor Ogletree has extensive academic credentials and is described as, “…a prominent legal theorist who has made an international reputation by taking a hard look at complex issues of law and by working to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution for everyone equally under the law.”  Dr. Ogletree has also been widely noted in recent years as the mentor of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. 
    • Johanna Wald, the Institute’s Director of Strategic Planning and Development, has authored a number of articles on the “School to Prison Pipeline” and related issues.
    • Johanna Wald co-authored with Lisa Thurau a commentary in the February 24, 2010, issue of Education Week entitled, “Taking Safety Too Far: The Ill-Defined Role Police Play in Schools.”  The authors’ opinions include that, “..school resource officers and administrators forge uneasy alliances that are often based more on personalities and temperaments than on any set of objective criteria. Their decisions can be idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and highly confusing to students.”  They also state, “…broader and more systemic problems about policing in schools that should be of concern to parents, communities, school boards, and state legislatures across the country. It highlights the ambiguous and frequently ill-defined role that police play in schools, the unclear lines of authority that often exist between school officials and police placed there, and the highly subjective way in which decisions are made about when and under what circumstances a student’s conduct becomes criminal.”
  • Strategies for Youth.  A Cambridge, Mass.-based organization, Strategies for Youth has a mission to improve relationships between police and youth, “…by increasing the approach, options, and responses of police to youth.”  The organization provides training to services to law enforcement and youth.
    • Lisa Thurau is an attorney with a background in monitoring youth civil rights issues.   Ms. Thurau co-authored the Education Week article cited above with Johanna Ward.
  • Judge Steven Teske, Clay County (Georgia) Juvenile Court Judge.  Judge Teske is widely cited by the above organizations for leading programs in his county to reduce disproportionate minority contact, juvenile incarceration, and school referrals to juvenile court.
  • Dr. Russell Skiba, The Indiana UniversityDr. Skiba’s academic research publications on racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment and zero tolerance is cited frequently by the above organizations and others who discuss the “School-To-Prison Pipeline.”
  • The American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force: Published a report in December 2008 entitled, “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations.” 

While many education and school safety professionals have likely heard discussions on zero tolerance and school resource officers (SROs), I don’t believe many have been exposed to the more coordinated/interrelated advocacy efforts associated with it such as those above.  This adds a new dimension to the conversations. 

In the upcoming week’s blog posts, I will take a closer look at the issues discussed by the above and other organizations.  I will also bring in the perspectives of those on the front-lines of school safety to see how these outside discussions compare to the day-to-day reality of our nation’s school administrators and school safety professionals.

Ken Trump

Visit School Security Blog at:  http://www.schoolsecurityblog.com 

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