By Dameion B. Fowler
Zero tolerance calls for disciplinary actions (such as suspension or expulsion) as a non-negotiable response to violations of school rules. Though zero tolerance policies were introduced to decrease the occurrence of safety threats in public schools, they have proven to be ineffective at their goals.
Whether we are referencing the professional opinions of the American Bar Association, or those of the American Psychological Association, it becomes quite clear that these policies are not productive, have deleterious effects on the lives of many children (especially black children), and have strengthened the infamous “school to prison pipeline”.
There is no evidence, for instance, that zero tolerance policies…have done anything to decrease school violence. Evidence is mounting, however, that extreme disciplinary reactions are resulting in higher rates of repeat offenses and dropout rates.
The American Psychological Association adds:
Ultimately, an examination of the evidence shows that zero tolerance policies as implemented have failed to achieve the goals of an effective system of school discipline. Although it seems intuitive that removing disruptive students from school will make schools better places for those students who remain, or that severe punishment will improve the behavior of the punished student or of those who witness that punishment, the available evidence consistently flies in the face of these beliefs. Zero tolerance has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety.
On a more sinister level, scholars on the subject have concluded that zero tolerance school policies are an integral part of a larger neoliberal project to commodify children, strip them of critical thinking skills, and rob them of their political efficacy.
In a Sun News article that focused on the disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline against black students in Horry County Schools, a district official stated that the school district has no zero tolerance policy. I personally found this statement rather confusing due to the fact that it was made on behalf of a school district that is determined to see black children like Dre’Quan Dewitt in an alternative school.
However, if it is indeed true that Horry County Schools have no zero tolerance policy in place, what explains the fact that (according to information obtained via FOIA request) there were 1,106 expulsion hearings in the 2014-2015 school year, 1,259 expulsion hearings in the 2015-2016 school year, and 1,087 expulsion hearings in the 2016-2017 school year?
What explains the fact that there were 102 expulsions in the 2014-2015 school year, 139 expulsions in the 2015-2016 school year, and 115 expulsions in the 2016- 2017 school year?
What explains that fact that, in the three school years from 2014 to 2017, there was a total of 199,029 documented behavioral infractions in Horry County Schools? Are such enormous numbers based on terrible students or is it the fact that, due to de facto zero tolerance policies, children are being criminalized for acting like children?
For an example of why it is important to ask these questions, it is useful to refer to the following conclusions of Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity regarding the punishing of black students:
Although discriminant analysis suggests that disproportionate rates of office referral and suspension for boys are due to increased rates of misbehavior, no support was found for the hypothesis that African American students act out more than other students. Rather, African American students appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons. Coupled with extensive and highly consistent prior data, these results argue that disproportionate representation of African Americans in office referrals, suspension and expulsion is evidence of a pervasive and systematic bias that may well be inherent in the use of exclusionary discipline. [Emphasis added]
De facto zero tolerance methods in the hands of teachers with implicit racial bias can have devastating impacts on black children in HCS.
The fact that district officials are claiming that there are no zero tolerance policies in place does not mean that our children are not being targeted and set up for the “school to prison pipeline”.
We must call for an investigation into the numbers of young people sent into alternative education and if those expulsions were truly justified.
We also call for a moratorium on expulsions for any reason less than those that jeopardize the safety of HCS students.
Additionally, we must also call for an implementation of restorative justice practices that will decrease the numbers on suspensions and expulsions, keep more students in class, and help put an end to the criminalizing of our children.