Arresting Development

Zero tolerance and the criminalization of children

By Annette Fuentes

Illustrator: Alec Icky Dunn

Illustration: Alec Icky Dunn

A week before classes ended last spring, 13-year-old Diana Nava was waiting with her mother, Modesto, for the Los Angeles city bus that goes near her school. Even though her mother had awakened Diana early, she was behind schedule. An LA police officer patrolling for truants spotted them at the bus stop and gave Diana a ticket for violating the city’s daytime curfew. “My mother said, ‘She’s on her way to school’ but the officer said it didn’t matter.” For being late, Nava and her mother would have to go to court and face a $250 fine, a loss in time and money they could ill afford.

Nava was one of a dozen LA students who testified in August 2011 about their experiences with the truancy sweeps by LAPD officers and LA school police that have resulted in nearly 50,000 tickets since 2004. The hearing was called by Judge Michael Nash, head of LA’s juvenile court system, in response to five years of organizing by parents, students, and youth advocates against what they see as unfair and ineffective policies. Supposedly designed to improve student attendance, this aggressive truancy policing has discouraged students from going to class and often pushes them to drop out and into harm’s way. “Truancy tickets play a role in the school-to-prison pipeline,” said student Cinthia Gonzalez at the hearing. “Students are being brought up in an environment that is a pre-prisoning of youth.”

Jose Gallego’s story is a case in point. The 23-year-old explained: “I’m a high school dropout. I was supposed to graduate in 2008, but I missed a few days of school because my parents were going through a hard time. They kicked me out of school. So, then I started selling CDs downtown. I was arrested for selling CDs, I was locked up, and I got out with a whole different perspective. I never had been in juvenile detention. I didn’t know what to do. I started selling drugs. Now I’m lost. I’ve got a little brother and a little sister, they don’t look up to me anymore. I’m a two-time convicted felon. It’s hard for me to get a job.”

Los Angeles is not the only place where heavy-handed policing has become a problem that advocates say puts students at risk of dropping out. From New York to Florida to Texas, the combination of zero tolerance policies and the increased role of police—in schools and on the streets—has led to an alarming number of suspensions, expulsions, and contact of ever-younger children with the criminal justice system.

How did we get to this point?

Zero Tolerance—The War on Drugs Becomes a War on Youth

The term “zero tolerance” was first coined during the Reagan presidency and the war on drugs in the 1980s. Congress enacted the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act in 1986, bringing the war on drugs to school with rules that mandated zero tolerance for any drugs or alcohol on public school grounds. During the Clinton administration, Congress took zero tolerance steps further, passing the 1994 Safe and Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated a one-year expulsion for students who brought a firearm to school and pumped federal departments of Education and Justice funding into antiviolence programs. Youth, especially African American and Latino males, were considered by criminologists like James Q. Wilson and John Dilulio as superpredators who would fuel an explosive juvenile crime wave in coming decades. A half-dozen high-profile school shootings in the early 1990s, punctuated by the 1999 Columbine shootings, cemented the idea that young people and the public schools they inhabited were dangerous places indeed.

Fear of school violence grew and has persisted despite the clear downward trend in documented incidents of violent crime in schools. Since 1993, according to reports issued annually by the National Center for Education Statistics, incidents of violence in school have been steadily dropping. It is a downward trend that echoes the same crime drop in the nation as a whole. But fear of crime in schools has trumped reality and common sense in shaping policies at the state and local school board levels. Zero tolerance, once focused on drugs, alcohol, and guns, now targets an ever-expanding range of behaviors.

In districts across the country, the presence of police inside public schools has led to rising rates of arrests of students for minor violations of disciplinary codes or simple youthful hijinks that in another era would have landed a student in the principal’s office. The idea of the “teachable moment,” turning a student error into a learning opportunity, is less likely in a schoolhouse where handcuff-wielding cops teach the lesson.

“Things a police officer might not arrest someone in a bar fight for, you’re seeing them make arrests in schools for. There are a lot of children arrested for disorderly conduct, which has a very subjective definition. Whoever is standing there gets to define it. It could be a student who refuses to sit down in class, or a spitball,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy and policy group.

Students’ clothing choices and idle doodling have been viewed through the zero tolerance lens as proof of gang membership, meriting suspension. Examples abound of even young children punished for transgressions. A 2005 Yale Child Study Center study found that pre-kindergarten students were being expelled from school at a rate three times that of K-12 students. In the post-Sept. 11 United States, a collective fear of terrorists has also colored disciplinary policies, as school districts around the country have added to codes of conduct rules that prohibit “terroristic threats.”

The most immediate and visible consequence of punitive discipline policies are the skyrocketing numbers of suspensions logged by state school agencies over the last decade. California, with its 6.1 million public school students, recorded 757,000 suspensions of students during the 2009–10 academic year. It was second only to Texas, where 1.6 million suspensions were ordered that same year—and the Lone Star’s public school population is just 4.7 million.

According to Breaking Schools’ Rules, a groundbreaking 2011 study of Texas’ public school disciplinary practices, 54 percent of students in the state were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades. Just 3 percent of all disciplinary actions were for conduct—such as possessing a gun or drugs on campus—that trigger mandatory expulsion or suspension. The other 97 percent were made at the discretion of school administrators for violations of codes of conduct. Black and special education students were most likely to be suspended or expelled. And students suspended or expelled for discretionary violations were three times as likely to have a subsequent brush with the juvenile justice system.

The discriminatory aspects of zero tolerance policies are widespread and well documented. Zero tolerance suspensions are dished out to African American and Latina/o students way out of proportion to their numbers, a disparity Indiana University professor of educational psychology Russell Skiba found goes back 25 years. Skiba and other education researchers suggest that when teachers are inexperienced or come from racial and class backgrounds very different from the students they teach, “cultural discontinuities” can create adversarial dynamics in the classroom. Alienating curriculum, poor classroom management skills, and negative stereotypes of black youth can lead to authoritarian disciplining and overreliance on suspensions.

Drastic cutbacks in counselors and other support personnel exacerbate the problem. Referring to an example of police overreaction in a San Francisco high school, N’Tanya Lee, until recently executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, noted: “Our concern [is] the allocation of resources to policing and the increased willingness to push disciplinary issues into the hands of the police. A resource-strapped dean who has two kids fighting will just say to a safety police officer, ‘Here, you handle it.’”

In the last 20 years, a growing body of literature by academics and mounting caseloads for legal advocates for youth have been documenting the significant harm and ineffectiveness of zero tolerance disciplinary policies for children and youth—especially African Americans and Latina/os. In 2006, the American Psychological Association was impelled by the weight of evidence to take a public stand against zero tolerance. An APA report called punitive discipline harmful to adolescent development and rebutted the idea that school violence is “out of control” and necessitated a zero tolerance approach. In the years since, such evidence has only increased.


Security and surveillance technology are also an important part of the zero tolerance model of school safety and discipline. For the nearly $20 billion U.S. security industry, schools represent a fertile market, according to the Security Industry Association, a trade organization. Metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and cutting-edge technologies—including biometric systems that use individual identifiers such as fingerprints and are common in prisons—are promoted for use in schools. Eleven percent of all students attend schools that use metal detectors; 58 percent of students attend school under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras. With a total public school population of some 26 million, simple math says that for millions of children, being scanned and monitored has become as much a part of their daily education as learning to read and write.In one indicator of how important security technology has become in schools, when the trade magazine Security published the “Security 500,” its first ranking of the “biggest and the best security programs in the United States,” public schools rated a prominent place. The list includes 14 public school districts—six of them in Florida. Ranked 291, the Houston Independent School District was rated highest among schools—and one step above semiconductor giant Intel.Houston’s place among security heavy hitters was well deserved. The HISD budgeted $18.9 million for “security and monitoring” for the 2007–08 school year; three years and a recession later, despite drastic cuts in funding, they budgeted $20.5 million for the 2010–11 school year.

Police in the Schools

Zero tolerance policies have been matched by a police presence in schools that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. For example, in Texas, Augustina Reyes, a professor of education at the University of Houston, began researching suspensions in public schools in 1998. Recently, she said, “zero tolerance has escalated to a new level,” as police issue tickets for minor student code violations. Disrupting class, using profanity, acting up on a school bus, truancy, and fighting in a school hallway can lead to a class C misdemeanor ticket and a court appearance for the student and her/his parent, plus court costs of up to $500. In the 2007–08 school year, an estimated 275,000 non-traffic class C tickets were issued to juveniles in Texas, she reports.

“My students did court visitations in the spring and they found Justice of the Peace Courts with as many as 200 students on the 10 a.m. court docket—115 from high school, 80 from middle school, and 10 from the elementary school,” she said in a phone interview. Of those cases, 85 percent of ticketed students were minorities or economically disadvantaged, Reyes said, and the financial burden on parents was significant. Although the judge typically defers sentences and requires perfect attendance for two to three months, Reyes noted that the court action creates a criminal record for students as young as 6 years old. “The cases we heard clearly need [instead]school interventions that require teachers and administrators to come up with focused family interventions.”

Although policing in schools isn’t new—Flint, Mich., had the first city police officer assigned to a public school back in 1953—it wasn’t until the 1990s that police officers became widely deployed on school campuses. After the 1999 Columbine shootings, the U.S. Department of Justice started the COPS in Schools program, expanding an earlier school policing initiative, which makes grants to school districts to hire school resource officers (SROs). Under President George W. Bush, the COPS program doubled in scope, and has given close to $1 billion to 3,000 school districts nationwide to hire 6,500 SROs. A smaller initiative by the departments of Education and Health and Human Services has spent another $10 million to fund SROs. Although there are no centrally tabulated statistics on the total number of police officers or SROs operating in public schools, data collected by the National Center for Education give some idea. In a 1999 NCES survey, 54 percent of students said their schools had either police or security guards; in 2007 (the most recent year for which data are available), 69 percent did.

Policing in some school districts is done by the city or town’s own police or sheriff’s departments. In New York City, school safety was put under the control of the New York Police Department when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor in the 1990s. The NYPD’s school safety division has more than 5,000 officers, making it the fifth largest police force of any kind in the country—larger than the police forces of Boston, Detroit, Las Vegas, or Washington, DC, according to a report from the New York Civil Liberties Union. The report, using 2009 data, notes that the city’s budget for policing and security equipment in the schools increased 65 percent, topping $221 million.

The Advancement Project investigated policing in several school districts where arrest rates had soared. In 2003 they published Derailed! The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track. Browne-Dianis, who authored the report, said: “I got into this because I was working with a Mississippi district where the school policy was that any student involved in a fight—even kids in arguments—had to be sent to youth court, where they could get fined $15 to $500 or probation of six months to a year. I never suspected when I [started looking] at this data that we would be finding children arrested for disorderly conduct or battery on a school board employee.”

Policing and punitive disciplinary approaches to school safety contribute to a school climate that is actually more dangerous, not safer. Education professors Matthew Mayer and Peter Leone studied school violence and strategies for creating safer schools back in 1999 and found that schools with more security measures—including metal detectors, locked doors, and security guards—paradoxically had a “higher level of disorder.” They called it a “cycle of disorder” in which such restrictions and controls actually created a “reciprocal, destructive relationship” with students . . . who live in a “heightened state of fear.”

That cycle of disorder is compounded in the pressure-cooker conditions that too many public schools experience under the accountability movement of the last decade. Mayer and Leone revisited school safety issues in a 2004 article that examined the “fit” between a school’s agenda and the needs of students and their families. A big disconnect between the two can result in problem behaviors, they argue, and the mandates of No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes testing movement it feeds can create a bad fit, leading to suspension and academic failure. “Students who are marginally successful in school may be at increased risk for exclusion and may be disciplined for negative behaviors disproportionately,” they wrote. “Schools desperately seeking to improve their test results may embark on an unwritten campaign to drive academically and behaviorally at-risk students out of the school. This could set the stage for increased acts of aggression and violence around school as these students are marginalized academically and socially.”

Ending Zero Tolerance—Communities Fight Back

The high costs to students, teachers, and public education of zero tolerance discipline and policing in schools is causing a backlash in some districts where community organizing is targeting practices like LA’s truancy sweeps. After years of protests, the city’s Board of Education adopted a policy to implement districtwide a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a skills-building, nonpunitive strategy, as the official disciplinary policy, erasing zero tolerance from the books. Although it has been implemented only slowly and unevenly in the public schools, activists are hopeful that it can spark a culture change that will encourage students to stay in school. On policing, LA advocates have scored some success, too. Both the LAPD and the LA school police have announced that they will no longer conduct truancy sweeps during the first hour of the school day in order to avoid ticketing students who would be late for school, not truant. In Chicago, restorative justice is part of a revised student code of conduct. Denver also revised their student disciplinary policies under pressure from parent, student, and legal organizers.

Palm Beach, Fla., was one of the districts featured in the Derailed! study. The district’s police department was arresting students at astronomical rates. The county’s legal services advocates were grappling with increased caseloads as students overloaded the juvenile justice courts. Barbara Briggs, director of the Educational Advocacy Project for the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, saw policing spike sharply after the Columbine incident: “That started the zero tolerance language. And from zero tolerance for students with weapons, it really morphed to zero tolerance for behavior typical of adolescents.”

After years spent defending students who’d been pushed out of district schools for minor misbehaviors, Briggs, along with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Southern Legal Counsel, charged the district with violating a state education law that protects special education students, who were disproportionately hit with suspensions. Briggs said the strategy of going to the state instead of to the courts was one reason for the relatively quick action on the complaint. The Southern Poverty Law Center had seen such a strategy used successfully by the Southern Disability Law Center and wanted to try it in Florida. “When you go to court, you never get to the merits,” she said. “This is why we like the state complaint venue. It’s a venue that gets you straight to the issue.”

The settlement is “everything we wanted,” Briggs said. It requires the district to contract with a consultant with “school-based experience and nationally recognized expertise in PBIS. All schools in the district are included and all school staff—from bus drivers to principals—will be trained in PBIS and a new code of conduct will be crafted that changes the paradigm from punishment and suspensions to behavioral corrections and individually designed plans for students with persistent problems.

“The analogy that the consultant talked about stuck with me: If a student makes a math error, you don’t send them home. You keep teaching and you never stop teaching math. And the same is true for social skills and behavior errors. You reward them for doing it right,” Briggs said. “And you do that for everybody. That analogy really speaks to teachers.” After a year, the new approach is already having an impact in many—but not all—schools, she said.

At the national level, a 5-year-old coalition of legal, education, and community groups known as the Dignity in Schools Campaign has been pushing for reforms to NCLB that would replace zero tolerance with alternatives and de-emphasize high-stakes testing. Last spring the coalition lobbied in Washington, D.C., for federal funding to support restorative justice and schoolwide positive behavioral supports to reduce suspensions and end the school-to-prison pipeline.

Students and their advocates face a long struggle to change the culture of school discipline that relies so heavily on law enforcement and criminal justice system strategies. But for young activists, reforming public schools and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline created by zero tolerance may become the civil rights struggle of their generation.

“We want students to feel safe and encouraged to come to school,” said Gonzalez. “An environment that has police and armed security guards and locked gates—that doesn’t make us feel safe. The reality is that cops criminalize students for every little thing. For me it’s violating our human rights because it’s such a hostile place.”

Annette Fuentes (Contact Me) is the author of Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (