When schools began greatly expanding zero-tolerance policies against student misbehavior after the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, few expected to see kids as young as 6 handcuffed and removed from school for throwing a temper tantrum or playing with squirt guns.
With nearly half of states now mandating that schools expel and often call the police on students for fighting, possessing weapons of any kind or even disrupting class, thousands of students nationwide have been kicked out of school or seen the inside of a cop car for violating zero-tolerance policies.
Now, recent outcries over arrests of elementary students and mounting evidence that zero-tolerance policies adversely impact disadvantaged students have sparked a debate over the proper balance between safety and tolerance in America's schools. Some of the first stirrings of a possible retrenchment can be seen in three states -- Indiana, Mississippi and Texas -- where a handful of lawmakers are trying to reverse the trend of adopting ever-more stringent discipline policies.
What is zero tolerance?
The term "zero tolerance" was coined in the 1980s for strict drug-seizure policies adopted as part of the federal "War on Drugs."
Beginning in 1989, school districts in California, New York and Kentucky were the first to attach the term "zero tolerance" to policies mandating expulsion for drugs, fighting and gang-related activity, according to the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.
Zero tolerance became national policy for schools when President Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which was passed in response to several school shootings across the country. The federal law required states to expel students who bring firearms to school for at least one calendar year.
State lawmakers and school boards since have expanded the punishment for weapons to include automatic expulsion or suspension for drugs and alcohol, fighting, swearing, disrupting class, disobedience, truancy and more than a dozen other forms of misbehavior.
Highly publicized arrests in Florida and Nevada in the past two months are among dozens of examples where zero-tolerance policies have gone too far, critics say. In January, two grade-school children were arrested in Ocala, Fla., for drawing threatening stick figures in class. A 6-year-old in Florida's Brevard County was handcuffed and removed from school for hitting his teacher and a police officer with a book. And in Nevada, Clark County School District officials recently tried to expel a student who drew a comic strip depicting the death of his teacher.
"Clearly I think there are incidents that are so excessive that the facts show that this is a mindless policy in most places," said Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that works on child-welfare and juvenile justice system issues.
Some school officials and police say parents concerned about safety have demanded such stepped-up vigilance and discipline, and leave them no alternative but to have children removed from school and sometimes entered into the criminal justice system. To critics, however, there is scant evidence that zero-tolerance policies increase school safety and mounting evidence that harsh discipline may do more harm than good.
"There is no data that zero tolerance makes a difference either in improving school climate or improving student behavior," said Russ Skiba, an education psychology professor at Indiana University and the director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.
In fact, the data point the other direction, said Skiba, who has done several studies critical of zero-tolerance policies.
"There's abundant evidence that suspensions/expulsions disproportionately fall upon minority students, and there are direct correlations between use of suspensions/expulsions to dropout rates and juvenile incarceration," he said.
In a study released last summer, Skiba reported that African-American students in Indiana are four times more likely to get suspended and two-and-a-half times more likely to be expelled than white students. Previous studies have found no evidence that this is due to higher rates of misbehavior by minority students, Skiba said. Instead, African-American and Hispanic students appear to be suspended and expelled for more subjective and minor infractions than white students, he said.
Backers of zero-tolerance policies say that tactics such as installing metal detectors, creating crisis-response plans and cracking down on bullying, unruly and suspicious behavior have led to a dramatic drop in school-related violence.
They point to a federal report issued in December 2004 that showed violent crime in schools fell 50 percent between 1992 and 2002, a striking decline that mirrors the national drop in crime. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found a drop in the number of weapons students admitted bringing to school in a national survey. The center reported that 6.1 percent of high school students admitted they had carried a gun, knife, or club on school property in 2003, down from 6.9 percent in1999.
The Columbine school shooting in Colorado -- in which Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide -- was the worst in a series of a dozen school shootings in the United States over an 18-month period. Although children actually are much safer in school than out -- the chance of becoming a victim in a school-associated violent death is less than one in a million, according to the Youth Law Center -- these incidents had an enormous effect on public perceptions of school danger.
Zero-tolerance policies were not new in 1999, but in the wake of Columbine, they were dramatically expanded by state legislatures and school districts to include not just weapons and drugs, but fighting and misbehavior.
Now the list of infractions that can get students expelled or arrested tops 20, ranging from swearing and insubordination to making terrorist threats or skipping school. Under federal law, all states must adopt zero-tolerance policies for firearms. But since Columbine, zero-tolerance policies have been adopted for fighting in 23 states, for disrupting class in 19 states, and kids can be expelled for making threats in 12 states, according to the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.
The tide may be turning, however. Few states have recently expanded their zero-tolerance policies, and this year, several lawmakers have introduced bills to roll them back.
In Texas, zero-tolerance policies have resulted in a disproportionate number of low-income, disabled and minority students being sent to alternative disciplinary schools, most of which have few books or computers and substandard teachers, said Texas state Rep. Dora Olivo, a Democrat.
"What makes me really concerned is that the majority of kids sent to disciplinary schools are poor kids, almost all black and brown children," Olivo said.
Olivo recently introduced a bill that would make schools responsible for the assessment test scores of students who are transferred into disciplinary schools. Olivo said there is an incentive for school officials to warehouse low-achieving students in disciplinary schools in an attempt to raise their school's overall test scores. The measure passed the Texas House last week and is being considered by the Senate.
The national movement toward school accountability and mandatory testing, such as President Bush's sweeping No Child Left Behind law, which penalizes schools that do not raise student test scores, has lead to abuse of zero-tolerance policies, said Soler of the Youth Law Center.
Increasingly, he said, groups who perform poorly on standardized tests, such as students with disabilities, minorities and low-income kids, are targeted for expulsion by school administrators and kicked out for minor infractions.
"It's a real problem because raising test scores is becoming a major part of (employment) contracts for principals and school administrators, and they are ready to do anything to make sure that their schools look good," Soler said.
Another bill pending in Texas, introduced by Republican state Sen. Jon Lindsay, would require that a student's intent be considered in reaction to any incident. In Mississippi, Democratic state Rep. Eric Fleming introduced a bill that would prohibit schools from zero-tolerance policies. And legislation has been introduced in Indiana to study why African-American and Hispanic students are suspended more frequently than white students.