Black Boys in Crisis: The Problem with Zero Tolerance

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

As a response to rising drug problems in high schools, “zero tolerance” policies began trending in the 1990s. They were intended as a way to enforce anti-drug policies but quickly became an all-encompassing way of life for school discipline. Though zero tolerance has been deprecated in some areas, many schools still implement the policy and use it as an excuse to remove students for the most minor infractions. When you couple these policies with a perceived rise in violent crimes inside schools and more armed officers present on K-12 campuses, it can spell disaster for students who may only need moderate behavior interventions to succeed in classrooms.

The term zero tolerance may sound like the best way to handle all offenses in public schools, but it is often catastrophic. Not every infraction is a black-and-white issue and not every misstep by a student is a result of direct defiance. Often students with legitimate learning disabilities or social impairment are labeled as “disruptive” and removed from classroom settings under the guise of preserving the learning experience for better-behaved students. What becomes of these students? If they are able to avoid suspension or expulsion, they are often shunted into classrooms with other low-performing students, where the teacher is focused almost solely on discipline. They end up receiving a lower-class education.

Though ideology on problem students is slowly evolving, at present the removal process is the most widely accepted. Let’s look at what happens when to those individuals who are suspended or expelled. Sally Powalski, who works for a long-term juvenile facility in Indiana, writes about what she sees every day: young men with no expectations of improvement and therefore no motivation. Powalski says this of the young men who come through her counselor’s office:

“They have been given the message for several years that they are not allowed in regular school programs, are not considered appropriate for sports teams, and have had their backs turned on them because everyone is just tired of their behavior. . . . Why should they strive for more than a life of crime?”  Powalski hits the nail on the head. Children are just as much a product of their environments as the expectations placed on them. Parents on a first-name basis with law enforcement officials certainly influence the behavior of their children, but school authorities with preconceived negative associations create an expectation of failure too.

We know that zero tolerance does not work. So, why on earth does this policy still exist?

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