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David Chura: "Zero Tolerance" Creates More Problems Than it Solves

Today's post is from David Chura, author of I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. Chura has worked with at-risk teenagers for forty years. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and multiple literary journals and anthologies, and he is a frequent lecturer and advisor on incarcerated youth. This post originally appeared at his Kids in the System blog.

Chura-flickr-lockers  "Zero tolerance." It sounds like a good idea: "Put your foot down." "Get tough." "We're not taking it anymore."

The American public, worried about the purported drug and gun wars being fought in our cities in the 1990s, grabbed onto this concept. In turn, a number of states and municipalities adopted "zero tolerance" laws.

Since then "zero tolerance" has pervaded our culture.

Draconian drug laws impose harsh sentences on nonviolent offenders, glutting prisons and draining overextended state budgets, while leaving the people with drug problems untreated.

Our hard-hitting laws about who is a sex offender create a caste of people who will be a burden for the rest of their lives on the very society these laws hoped to shield.

Certainly citizens, young and old, need to be protected from real sex offenders, but consider the case of a 17-year-old I taught at the county jail.

Book Cover for I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like MineEarle was serving time as a sex offender. His crime? Sleeping with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Janet Marie's mother didn’t have a problem with letting him stay over night as much as he wanted. Until one day she had a big fight with Janet Marie about keeping her room clean, and Earle became a pawn in their battle.

The mother called the cops, accused Earle of sleeping with her underage daughter, and Earle was convicted of statutory rape. Under "zero tolerance," he wasn't a stupid teenage boy anymore who, as Robert De Niro says to his son in the movie, Bronx Tale, let his little head get the better of his big head, but a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Recently, "zero tolerance" policies in schools, where their misuse is most obvious and egregious, have come under fire, and not soon enough.

An editorial in the New York Times points out these well intentioned regulations have become a debacle for children. Originally meant for such serious offences as drug or weapon possession in schools, overzealous school personnel and local officials have taken some bizarre stances in the name of "getting tough."

Children have been arrested for profanity, hallway tussles, mouthing off at a teacher, things that used to get you detention and a pretty uncomfortable meeting with a parent.

To the general public these cases of misjudgment seem almost laughable. We wonder, "Whatever happened to commonsense?" Yet teachers and administrators who overreact are responding to the legislative pressure of "zero tolerance."

Their overreactions, however, have far-reaching results on young people. It contributes to a devastating cycle that the American Civil Liberties Union calls the "school-to-prison pipeline": Students (mostly minorities) are kicked out of school; they then end up in the only place that accepts them for what they are-- the streets; and more times than not those streets lead to the dead-end world of jail.

The courts, however, are finally stepping in. In Massachusetts a Federal District judge recently ruled that LD, a Worcester eighth-grader, was wrongfully suspended for a year because he had a knife in school.

But wasn't that a clear breach of the school's "zero tolerance" weapons policy?

Here's the story. One day in gym class, LD's friend told him that another kid threatened him with a knife. LD, an honors student who never got into trouble, confiscated the knife without incident. He planned on turning it in to the front office. But before he could word got to the assistant principal. When asked if he had a knife, LD, good kid that he was, said yes and explained. He hadn't waved the knife around tough-man style. He hadn't threatened anybody. Still, in the eyes of the school, he violated the “zero tolerance” policy and was suspended for a year.

Luckily LD, along with two determined lawyers (one, an attorney from the Center for Law and Education in Boston,) challenged this decision and won. The court ruled that LD's one-year suspension was so "grossly disproportionate" to his wrongdoing that his right to "due process" had been violated.

But LD wasn't the only winner. Thousands of young people (over 10,000 in Massachusetts) who are pushed out of the school system, often's efforts, along with those of such advocacy groups as the American Bar Association which has called for a reduction in the removal of students from schools through the discipline process, will nudge educators towards establishing more constructive intervention policies.

With more and more schools reverting to the tried and true approach of judging each student situation case by case, perhaps other segments of our society where "zero tolerance" has rampaged through people's lives will begin to examine the real, lasting, destructive effects this policy has had on us as a country and culture.

In the meantime, I, for one, have "zero tolerance" for "zero tolerance."

Locker photo by westerndave on Flickr.