Obama Administration Tells Schools to “Rethink” Zero-Tolerance

In the sixth grade, I hit Joyce Crosby with a snowball during lunch recess. I ended up in the principal’s office.

Mrs. Updike sat at her big wooden desk, her salt-and-pepper hair perfectly coiffed in sculpture-like dips and dives. “You’re not going to do that again, are you.”

It wasn’t a question.

But nowadays, due to the proliferation of zero-tolerance policies, what used be stupid kid tricks have turned into punishable offenses.

If the incident had happened today, that snowball, which I am sorry to say clobbered the kid right in the kisser, might be considered a projectile and my deed suspension-worthy. I might be ordered to counseling for aggressive behavior, or sent to a juvenile detention center.

This week the U.S. Department of Education urged school officials to ease up on school discipline policies that have had parents crying foul for the past two decades. Known as “zero-tolerance,” the one-strike-and-you’re-out  practices came about as a result of the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) of 1994.

“Rethink,” I believe, is the term the Obama administration used, and it’s about time. Most people think the whole thing has gone too far.

Today, with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies turning stupid kid stuff into crimes, that snowball might be considered a projectile and my deed suspension-worthy. I might be ordered to counseling for aggressive behavior, or sent to a juvenile detention center.

But none of those things happened.

snowball fight

“Don’t throw any more snowballs,” was all Mrs. Updike said.  She didn’t even call my parents.

“Today, too many students are unnecessarily removed from class due to suspensions, expulsions, and other exclusionary discipline practices,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated in a guidance letter to school officials titled School Climate and Discipline.

According to a recent NPR story, “The move by the Education and Justice departments comes after years of complaints from civil rights groups and others who say the policies are ineffective and take an unfair toll on minorities.”

Duncan goes on to say, “In 2011 alone, more than 3 million public school children received out-of-school suspensions, and over a hundred-thousand students were expelled, leading to our students losing hundreds of thousands of hours of instructional time. Youth of color and students with disabilities are far more likely to be removed from school for disciplinary reasons than other students.”

Mr. Secretary is talking about non-violent behavior that used to mean a phone call home. Even child’s play, like pointing a finger at someone and saying, “Bang,” can now land a kid in trouble

Why? Because the Gun-Free Schools Act, passed five years before the 1999 Columbine shootings, called for the mandatory expulsion of any student caught at school with a weapon.

Individual states got on the band wagon, passing their own – and in some cases more stringent – legislation. A kid blowing a spit-wad at a classmate through a pen-casing less than one-half inch in diameter can be punished for using a projectile.

Office of the Principal

Why do administrators cave in to the craziness? Abiding by the GFSA is required in order for states to qualify for federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was renewed with the GFSA of 1994. (I know, boring stuff. But remember, along with the money comes the mandate.)

Let’s take a look at some of the offenses that have humiliated students, wasted parents’ time, and had school officials scraping egg off their faces:

In Delaware a second grader was suspended for biting a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun.

In October 2009, six-year old Zachary Christie was suspended for 45 days, and threatened with placement in a reform school, for carrying a camping utensil to school – a tool with a fork, spoon and small knife blade. After a public outcry, the suspension was lifted and he was able to return to school

In October 2009, Matthew Whalen, a high school senior and an Eagle Scout; was suspended for 20 days for keeping a 2-inch pocketknife locked in a survival kit in his car. His suspension was kept in force despite public protest.

One of my favorite transgressions involves a Delaware grandmother who sent a birthday cake to school along with a knife to cut it with. The teacher cut the cake, and then reported the birthday girl to the principal for having a dangerous weapon.


Here are a few more, reported by columnist Linda Starr on

  • In Thornton, Colorado, a fifth-grade girl was arrested for sexual harassment after repeatedly asking a classmate if he liked her.
  • In Jefferson County, Missouri, a fifth-grader was suspended for drawing a picture of a burning World Trade Center and smiling as he showed the picture to classmates. A school district representative called the child’s behavior “threatening.”
  • In Jonesboro, Arkansas, a first-grader was suspended for pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying “Pow.”
  • In Deer Lakes, Pennsylvania, a kindergarten student was suspended for bringing a toy ax to school. He was dressed as a firefighter for Halloween.

Students have also been suspended or expelled in the past for bringing such items to school as Tylenol, Midol, Listerine, cough drops and toy guns, including a water pistol.

Starr writes in her column, “The vast majority of those punishments were for minor offenses – the inevitable result of children acting like children. The emotional and educational fallout from those suspensions and expulsions, however, reach into adulthood.”

At one time, zero-tolerance policies seemed like just the ticket for a nation dreading the spread of drugs and gang violence and hoping it wouldn’t crop up in their own backyards.

Now, kids in some school districts can’t even wear a baseball cap because it may indicate a particular gang affiliation. Even tee shirts bearing team logos are banned. At one Colorado elementary where I taught remedial reading, kids were told they had to change when they wore clothing bearing other than the Denver Broncos logo or their school mascot. And that was on a “team spirit” day.

Zero-tolerance has not only wrecked students’ chances of graduating on time and starting college, but has become a “pipeline to prison” for kids who are unfairly and unnecessarily exposed to the juvenile justice system. Kids committing non-violent infractions that used to warrant not much more than verbal warning have been treated like criminals – suspended, sent to “special schools” for kids with behavior problems, and generally harassed, humiliated and isolated from their teachers and peers, and refused readmission to their “home” schools.

Sure, the Obama Administration issued new voluntary guidelines aimed at giving school administrators greater freedom in responding to young “offenders.”

But haven’t school administrators had this power all along?

In Fairfax, Virginia,  two high school school students  reportedly received punishment so extreme for non-violent infractions that they were driven to suicide.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.

And certainly not in the grave.

NPR’s Claudio Sanchez reported, “Federal government figures show that of the three million students who were suspended or expelled during the 2010-2011 school year, a quarter of a million were referred to law enforcement, even though 95 percent were for non-violent behavior. The overwhelming majority, seven out of 10, were black, Latino and kids with disabilities. Civil rights advocates like Judith Browne Dianis, head of the Advancement Project, says the new guidelines will help reduce unnecessary suspensions and put school officials on notice.”

Although we know that minorities aren’t the only students affected by zero-tolerance policies, perhaps the inequity demonstrated by these figures was the catalyst needed to change course. If schools can’t take the pot off the burner altogether, they can at least lower the heat.


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