By now most of us have seen the video of the resource officer using brute force to yank a female student out of her desk. Appalling, most agree. But this country has been criminalizing students, if not violently, inhumanely and subtly, in their schools for a long time. Why do Americans put up with it?

They have permitted this to happen through arbitrary “no excuses” zero tolerance rules.

Wiki defines zero tolerance as a policy of punishing any infraction of a rule, regardless of accidental mistakes, ignorance, or extenuating circumstances. In schools, common zero-tolerance policies concern possession or use of illicit drugs or weapons. Students, and sometimes staff, parents, and other visitors, who possess a banned item for any reason are always (if the policy is followed) to be punished.

For starters, in 1994, before the sad event at Columbine, zero tolerance was put into place to curb school gun violence and drugs. If you’re a parent you know the mere mention of guns and schools scares you to death. So getting a resource officer for the school sounds like a good bet—an added measure of protection.

In most places, school resource officers are good people who blend in with the school administration. In the middle and high schools where I worked, the resource officers worked closely with the school counselors. As teachers, we knew they were there if you needed them, but most students saw them, if not as friends, as just another administrator.

School resource officers in many places began pairing with elementary schools with the controversial program DARE which was also supposed to deter students from drugs.

But zero tolerance, while it should do what it was designed for, began being used to punish students, even very young students, for minor offenses. Some of the punishments border on the bizarre and had nothing to do with guns or drugs.

Here’s a few examples From a Huff Post article by John W. Whitehead “Zero Tolerance Schools Discipline Without Wiggle Room.”

  • A high school sophomore was suspended for violating the school’s no-cell-phone policy after he took a call from his father, a master sergeant in the U.S military. 
  • A 12-year-old New York student was hauled out of school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with an erasable marker. 
  • In Houston, an eighth grader was suspended for wearing rosary beads to school in memory of her grandmother (the school has a zero tolerance policy against the rosary, which the school insists can be interpreted as a sign of gang involvement). 
  • Six-year-old Cub Scout Zachary Christie was sentenced to 45 days in reform school after bringing a camping utensil to school that can serve as a fork, knife or spoon.

Professors William Lyons and Julie Drew wrote a book called Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education. They start out with this:

We had witnessed fifty young people being told to relinquish their property for inspection and to stand quietly against a wall. We had watched several physically intimidating men wearing military uniforms and haircuts, combat boots and radios, with visible weapons and huge eager German Shepherds straining on short leashes, search that property for contraband. We stood by while one of these men and his dog searched the bodies of students, who said nothing and did as they were told. No one appeared afraid—except us.

Here are a few others:

  • In 2001, a month after 9-11, a fifth grader was suspended after drawing a picture of the World Trade Center attack. The child, who had Asperger’s syndrome, smiled while showing the picture. The school principal claimed the boy had also stuck a paper airplane on one of the towers. He suspended the child due to “disruptive physical conduct or speech” rule. The father argued that instead of suspending the child, the administration could have let the child speak to a school guidance counselor.
  • In 2003, school officials strip-searched 13-year-old Savana Redding, after finding some ibuprofen in a school planner Savana lent another student. They searched Savana’s backpack and found nothing. So the school nurse and assistant principal made her undress to her underwear and pull out her bra and panties to see if any of the pain reliever fell out. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court vindicated Savana based on the Fourth Amendment.
  • In Minneapolis-St. Paul, a student accidently left a box cutter used at his after school grocery store job in his car. It posed no threat, but a security guard saw it and the school suspended the student for 10 days. Up until that point the student had a flawless record.

I wrote a book a few years back and have a whole chapter on this stuff. Unfortunately, there are many more examples.

The way zero tolerance is used today is to deny children their basic right to be human—to make mistakes. And by not giving students a chance to explain their mistakes, they are treated abysmally.

This attitude, that children should behave perfectly in their schools—that they must never step off the line—permeates into the classroom.

Think about the strictness found in some charter schools where students must be robotic in their responses, where they are treated stricter than soldiers in the military, or prisoners in jail.

The new teacher training by those who never studied child development or behavior is all about control—keeping children in line. In today’s data-driven schools, the new fast-track teachers and so-called leaders care about outward appearances, not a child’s inside distress. They reject studying about behavior and development and about the problems facing children.

But if we were to zoom out and broadly look at schooling today, we would also see a general scorn for children—a meanness that commands but does not deal with a child’s troubling behavior.

There is a difference in dealing with challenging behavior and controlling it. Control means children learn nothing about how to be real human beings with feelings. Their feelings are not valued and they learn nothing about their mistakes. Instead, they learn about tactics for enforcement, because it is the enforcement that matters—not the child.

Certainly, school administrators want to ensure student safety. But all of these actions make me wonder whatever happened to all the “high expectation” talk?

Instead of high expectation, there is fear and loathing. And it leaves students and parents so frightened of public schools that they will run away from them if they can.

As far as the student who was assaulted in the video—did anyone think to ignore her bad behavior until after class was over? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if that would have worked.

I will be the first to tell you, that dealing with students with behavioral issues is tough and like most teachers the answers don’t come easily.

In fact, working with troubled students is one of the most difficult challenges in our schools today. But it should never result in violence, and officials must always remember that behind the behavior usually there is a frightened kid who wants acceptance and to be heard.

We need to return to schools that honestly care more about the children, and that won’t happen until real educators, who study and understand children, who learn how to treat them appropriately and with respect, get control of their public schools again.

Lyons, William and Julie Drew. Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education. (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006), 3-4.

Huchet, Charles G. “Zero Tolerance=Zero Thinking=Zero Sense: A School Policy That Places Our Kids at Risk. The Source. Winter 2001.

ACLU Confronts Criminalization of Children. Civil Liberties: The American Civil Liberties Union National Newsletter. Summer 2009.

Bailey, Nancy. Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students.(Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2013), 95.


Nancy Bailey is an education activist and a former special education teacher.  Her book is titled Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students.  Her blog is Catch up with her on twitter @NancyEBailley1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.