May 8, 2002 -- Becca Johnson thought she was just blowing off steam after doing badly on a test, but to school officials doodles on the back of her test paper looked like the 11-year-old was thinking of blowing someone away, so the honor roll student was suspended.
The notice of Johnson's suspension from Mellon Middle School in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., reached her home the same day that a letter announcing she'd been named to the honor roll arrived, her baffled parents said.
They said they taught her to use writing and drawing as an outlet for frustration she might feel in situations such as the one she was in, having just received a "D" on a vocabulary test.
They believe that Becca fell victim to a "zero-tolerance" policy at the school, which required administrators to suspend any student caught making a threat against teachers without any consideration of the individual circumstances.
While that kind of impartiality is part of what supporters of zero-tolerance policies say makes the rules good, according to some psychologists it can contribute to an adversarial relationship between students and teachers in schools that are already overcrowded and understaffed.
When students are suspended for infractions without being allowed to offer an explanation, they lose respect for authority, psychologists say. And that reaction on the part of students who are suspended, combined with the forced absence from school can do serious damage to a child's ability to learn, they say.
School administrators say they want to send a message that certain behavior will not be tolerated in schools, but critics say the real issue is concern about lawsuits and school officials' desire to get troublemakers out of the system, rather than actually addressing the causes of misbehavior.
Litany of Absurdity
If Becca Johnson's situation seemed to be an anomaly, critics of zero tolerance would likely have little ammunition, but every week it seems there is another case that provides fodder for arguments against the policies.
The same week that Johnson was suspended for drawing stick figures of her teachers with arrows through their heads, a 17-year-old in Fayette County, Ga., was suspended and arrested when school officials found a machete he used in his part-time landscaping business in the back of his truck, which he'd driven to school.
The boy and his father said he had worked late the evening before and simply forgot to take his tools out of the truck.
In April, a Madison, Wis., sixth-grader was suspended and told he would be expelled for a year when he brought a steak knife to school to dissect an onion for a class science project. The boy's family challenged the school's decision, and after a hearing before the school board the district's zero tolerance policy was amended to soften the punishment for students who have been caught with knives or other implements that could be considered weapons but have "no harmful intent."
Earlier this spring, a 10-year-old Sumter County, Fla., girl was suspended after she pointed an oak leaf she was pretending was a gun at classmate during a game she called "Civil War." School officials said the girl threatened her classmate, pretended to stab her and said she was going to kill her.
Also this spring, a Virginia boy who dyed his hair blue was given an in-school suspension because of the unusual color of his coif, which school officials termed disruptive. The boy's mother allowed him to dye his hair only after he had improved his grades to A's and B's. When the ACLU challenged the school's action, the boy was allowed to return to classes.
A ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Solution
Critics of the zero-tolerance policies behind these cases do not say that the children involved should not face some discipline or punishment, but argue that subjecting children to mandatory suspensions for such infractions does more harm than good.
"Let's make a decision based on a real understanding of what's going on," said Rutgers University psychology professor Maurice Elias. "If we don't have a real understanding of the cause, let's not take any action on it."
The National Education Association, the union that represents 2.7 million teachers and education support staff nationwide, "in general" opposes zero tolerance because they make it impossible for teachers and administrators to use their own knowledge of a situation and the student involved to determine what needs to be done, according to a spokeswoman.
"We think it takes away the judgment of an administrator and a teacher who are in the best position to make a decision," NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons said. "People have to be able to use their judgment."
The American Federation of Teachers, the nation's other major teachers union, originally supported zero tolerance rules, but now opposes them, calling like the NEA for more consideration of incidents on a case-by-case basis.
The American Bar Association has also come out in opposition to zero tolerance. In February 2001, the ABA adopted a resolution critical of the policies.
"Zero tolerance has become a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools confront. It has redefined students as criminals, with unfortunate consequences," the ABA resolution said.
One example noted in the ABA resolution was the case of a 12-year-old Louisiana boy who was turned over to police for telling the kids ahead of him in a lunchroom line, "I'm going to get you," if they took all the potatoes.
‘Adults Staking Moral Authority’
But if the policies so often leave egg on the faces of the administrators who mete out the punishment and are so bad for the education of students, then why are they so popular with the country's schools?
"On the one hand it's simple," Elias said. "I think it has more to do with the fear of lawsuits than anything else. On a deeper level, I think it bespeaks adults trying to stake their moral authority when there are really many shades of gray."
In the case of Becca Johnson, school officials said those shades of gray were considered.
They said that there was an investigation and that the school's zero-tolerance stance only applies to gun and drug offenses, not situations where a threat might have been made without any weapon being involved. The girl's mother, however, said she could only believe that her daughter's suspension was the result of a zero-tolerance policy.
"This does away with due process and inflicts a penalty without a hearing or investigation," said Becca's mother, Barbara Johnson.
Just Say No
Zero-tolerance policies first began to be considered during the Reagan era, with the "Just Say No" to drugs campaign, but did not become widespread until after Congress passed the 1994 Guns-Free Schools Act mandating a one-year expulsion and criminal charges for students caught bringing a gun to public schools.
Included in that law, though, was the opportunity for school administrators to review the individual circumstances of each case before making a judgement.
The language was amended a year later to expand the expulsion to include anyone bringing a "weapon" to school.
"I think this is really a case of unintended consequences," said Bernardine Dohrn, the director of the Children and Family Justice Center of the Northwestern University School of Law.
By 1997, 94 percent of the nation's public schools had zero-tolerance policies for firearms, 91 percent had such policies for weapons other than firearms, and 79 percent had them for violence, according to the most recent study by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
According to the same study, 88 percent of the nation's schools had zero-tolerance rules for drugs and 79 percent for tobacco.
An End to Discrimination?
Even supporters of the policies admit there have been aberrations that make the rules appear ridiculous.
"Critics point to a handful of cases in which Zero Tolerance has led to absurd results, including elementary school children suspended for carrying nail clippers or bringing plastic knives to school to cut the fruit in their lunches," State University of New York at Buffalo law professor Charles Patrick Ewing wrote in an article for the Harvard Education Letter, "Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance."
"If this is what is meant by Zero Tolerance, the critics are right; some schools have wildly overreacted," he wrote.
But supporters say that whatever their flaws, the policies create a system in which discrimination and prejudice are essentially eliminated, because school administrators cannot be more lenient towards the white, middle-class student who violates a rule than to the poor, minority student who breaks the same rule.
"That's always the argument," Dohrn said. "The discrimination just moves around. It doesn't disappear."
Russ Skiba, the director of the Institute for Child Study and an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychology at Indiana University, said statistics from virtually every study done of school discipline show that zero tolerance seems to have had no effect on who gets punished.
A Children's Defense Fund study from 1975 — long before zero tolerance became vogue — found that black children were two or three times as likely to be suspended as white students. Skiba said that recent studies show those statistics to be virtually unchanged.
Among recent studies, data from the Ohio Department of Education showed that of 297 districts that divided their discipline data by race, 252 disciplined blacks more frequently than whites. Skiba said those figures reflect nationwide trends.
He discounted arguments that the reason for that disparity is that it mirrors a higher rate at which black youngsters commit serious infractions in schools.
He said that according to nationwide studies of school discipline procedures, white students were most often "referred to the office" for discipline for clearly defined violations such as smoking, using obscene language or vandalism, while black students most often found themselves facing "fairly subjective" charges such as disrespect, loitering or threatening behavior.
"There is no data that shows that African-Americans are suspended more often because they act out more," Skiba said.
Rather than imposing zero tolerance, schools should be working to develop teachers' skills in dealing with students from different backgrounds so that they can defuse situations in the classroom and keep kids where they can learn.
Using a Hammer Too Often?
Even more, Skiba says that zero-tolerance policies have not done anything to improve the environment in schools.
"There isn't any evidence that zero tolerance has made a positive impact, either on school violence or on school behavior," he said. "If anything, it seems to be kind of negatively associated with school behavior or improving school climate.
"It [school discipline] is like a carpenter's tool box," he added. "A hammer is a useful tool for building a house, but it gets pretty ugly if you try to use it for too many things."
The reason, he said, seems to be that suspension is not the most effective form of punishment for students, as indicated by statistics showing that as many as 30 percent to 50 percent of children who are suspended repeat the same infractions once they are allowed to return to the classroom.
"If you've got kids with that kind of recidivism, psychologists will tell you that's not a very good punishment," he said.