We've written previously about the stupidity inherent in school "zero tolerance" policies, perhaps most painfully exemplified by a student's expulsion for "threatening" others with a pop tart he had bitten into the shape of a gun. When it comes to anything conceivably weapon-related (pop tart, 2-inch toy gun, fingers in a gun shape), most schools tend to overreact. This is largely due to a federal requirement that ties school funding to mandatory expulsions of students who bring weapons on campus.
There have been a few efforts made to roll these policies back. The NEA itself has released a paper [pdf] pointing out that questions the effectiveness of these policies in light of the fact that what little research exists indicates the policies have had very little effect on curbing unwanted behavior.
Despite the lack of rigorous research on this subject, existing case studies and analyses of suspension and expulsion data at the local level suggest that zero tolerance policies are not deterring misbehavior. In Tennessee, the number of drug and violent offenses in schools increased substantially over the first three years of a statewide implementation of zero tolerance policy. Furthermore, research has indicated that bullying is still rampant in many of the nation‘s schools. Approximately one in five elementary and middle school students admits to bullying his or her peers periodically. Unfortunately, researchers have not examined rates of misbehavior or suspension on a national level for schools with zero tolerance policies.
The report suggests several alternative policies and responses, noting that suspensions and expulsions tend to aggravate the problem, rather than acting as a deterrent.
Texas Congressman Steve Stockman thinks he has a solution to the zero tolerance problem. Unfortunately, his laser-like focus on a single aspect means his proposed legislation will have little effect on the overall problem
Congressman Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, calls H.R. 2625 the "Student Protection Act," and "A bill to protect the rights of children."
It also would deny federal funding to any school that punishes a child for "using a pencil, pen or other writing utensil to simulate a firearm."
The bill states: "So-called 'zero-tolerance' weapons policies in federally funded schools are being used to outlaw harmless expressions of childhood play.
"So-called 'zero-tolerance' weapons policies in federally funded schools are being used to teach children to be afraid of inanimate objects that are shaped like guns."
Because Stockman is so focused on a single aspect of zero tolerance policies (his bill includes several examples of students being expelled or suspended for non-weapon "weapons," including a child who was kicked out of school and arrested for wearing an NRA shirt), his bill only addresses each specific
The bill continues: "No funds appropriated pursuant to any provisions of law may be used for any educational institution which punishes a student as a result of any of the following actions by the student:
"(1) brandishing a pastry or other food which is partially consumed in such a way that the remnant resembles a gun;
"(2) possession of a toy gun which is two inches or less;
"(3) possession of a toy gun made of plastic snap together building blocks;
"(4) using a finger or hand to simulate a gun;
"(5) vocalizing imaginary firearms or munitions;
"(6) wearing a T-shirt that supports Second Amendment rights;
"(7) drawing a picture of, or possessing an image of, a firearm; or
"(8) using a pencil, pen or other writing utensil to simulate a firearm."
This is all well and good as it applies to each
one of these instances, but proponents of zero tolerance policies have shown incredible amounts of creativity when applying them, rarely duplicating previous efforts. Everything noted here is highly unlikely to crop up again.
This also ignores two other factors. The first problem is Stockman's own. This bill follows up his failed attempt back in January to repeal the Gun-Free School Zones Act
, which ties funding to weapons policies, using the argument that the bill encouraged school shooters by giving them a weapons-free target. This looks like an attempt to run an end-around and achieve the same aim (strip school funding). As such, it's probably destined to die a swift death when put to vote.
The other factor is that zero tolerance policies have enjoyed a two-decade sprawl and the havoc wreaked isn't limited, as Stockman's bill is, to only
faux guns. A report [pdf] by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice
points out just how far these previously limited policies have spread.
Since then, the range of situations to which zero tolerance policies have been applied has broadened. Many school districts now include drugs, alcohol, disruptive behavior, and nonviolent offenses among zero tolerance infractions. According to the most recent data of national implementation of zero tolerance policies, 94% of schools have zero tolerance policies for weapons or firearms, 87% for alcohol and 79% have mandatory suspensions or expulsions for violence or tobacco. Examples of the everbroadening scope of zero tolerance policies include treatment of nail files, paper clips, scissors, and plastic knives as weapons and Aspirin, Midol, and Certs as drugs.
Stockman's bill seeks to address the problem, but only addresses outlying events, rather than core issues. His solution, untying federal funding from zero tolerance weapon policies, is probably a non-starter, especially in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. Another problem unaddressed is schools' increasing reliance on law enforcement to handle disciplinary actions, one that tends toward criminalizing behavior once written off as "kids acting like kids." The deepest problem, the spread of policies to cover every conceivable instance of "misbehavior," won't be addressed at all by a bill specifically tailored
to address events that have already happened
and are unlikely to reoccur.