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The Harm of Zero-Tolerance Policies

The zero-tolerance policies that were instituted several decades ago have entrenched an ineffective and prejudiced disciplinary system. 

Research demonstrates that zero-tolerance policies have failed to make schools safer as evidenced by a ten-year study conducted by the American Psychological Association. Scholars have alternatively discovered an inverse relationship in which schools that enforce zero-tolerance policies report higher rates of suspensions and expulsions. They also have comparatively lower ratings regarding the overall school climate and an increased likelihood of academic underperformance.

The policies spark fear within students through the subconscious knowledge that they may be suspended or arrested at any moment. They cultivate an environment wholly antithetical to that expected and intended. Schools should be a student’s safe space for students to learn and grow – never the beginning of their criminal record. 

Leaving school before receiving a degree gravely damages an individual’s ability to thrive. Dropouts are exponentially more likely to struggle to obtain a job and earn sufficient income to support themselves.

Students who have been suspended or expelled are more than eight times as likely to be incarcerated as those who graduate. Students who attend poorly run schools constitute 60% of the federal prison inmates and 75% in state prison. 

However, few anticipated the far-reaching consequences that stem from these policies. Proponents of harsh disciplinary policies believe zero-tolerance policies will deter future misconduct, although this theory has been disproven. Research demonstrates that school suspensions do not reduce the likelihood of disruption but that they actually predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspensions.

The ineffectiveness may be centrally traced to the tendency of punitive punishment systems to address the topical manifestation without considering the root cause of misbehavior. They isolate students and foster a predisposition for future struggles.

School suspension is the primary predictor of contact with the justice system for students to become incarcerated. Schools are increasingly outsourcing discipline to police departments, which precipitates a drastic increase in the number of youths in the juvenile justice system. Police arrest 2.2 million minors across the nation, and 1.7 million of these cases are referred to juvenile courts. It is estimated that almost 48,000 youth are confined in juvenile jails, prisons, boot camps, and other residential institutions on any given night. 

The majority are minority students: during the 2009–2010 school year, 70% of students arrested in schools were African American or Latino. Bias is a critical issue of zero-tolerance policies as the punishments assigned are often far too severe to be merited by minor offenses and so, from a young age, students learn to distrust authorities. 

Latino students are three times more likely to be suspended, expelled, and referred to the criminal justice system than their white peers that commit the same infraction, an issue merely worsened by the growing presence of student resource officers. They are intended to bolster a school’s safety, but interact with minorities at disproportionate rates, leading many students to feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

In California, a school board president, Mark Sanchez, asserted their district should terminate their contract with the San Francisco Police Department. During a school board meeting, he contended, “[a]ny money that we are spending on this program is not OK. It sends a horrible message to our students of color.”

An advocacy organization, Black Parallel School Board, who advocates for black students, echoed his message, claiming “[p]olicing in our schools teaches young people that they are viewed as criminals, not scholars.”

The growing trend to remove police from schools also stems from officers’ ability to use force, the extent of which is not necessarily merited. The Houston Chronicle reported that police officers in eight of the largest school districts in the Houston area had used force at least 1,300 times between 2011 and 2015 against students and trespassers. Like many across the nation, the officers drew firearms, fired pepper spray, hit students with nightsticks, or brought in police dogs.

In one instance, Noe Niño de Rivera spent an excess of 50 days in a medically induced coma after the sheriff assigned to his school tased him. He had interfered to stop a fight but fell backward and hit his head once the officer intervened. He has since struggled to regain his quality of life with impaired vision, balance, and memory.

However, Noe’s story is not unique. Many students have suffered mentally and physically as a result of zero-tolerance policies and their correlation with increased security and policing.