Zero Tolerance

Stopping serious crime by 'zero tolerance' for minor offences

A summary of an article by Ian Katz and Nick Cohen, entitled 'Can we heed Big Apple's message?', in The Observer (June 2nd '96).

New York City's crime rate has fallen dramatically over the past three years due to the 'zero tolerance' policy of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his Police Commissioner William Bratton. The idea is that rather than ignoring minor crimes, police should arrest and severely punish 'quality of life' criminals. The theory runs that if windows are left broken, the rest of the windows in the building will follow. This then creates a sense of lawlessness which emboldens others to commit more serious crimes.
Under this system, a metropolis that was once a byword for urban terror has been transformed in the space of a few years into one of the safest cities in America. Murders are down 40 per cent since 1993; burglary has dropped by a quarter. There are 30 per cent fewer robberies than two years ago and 40 per cent fewer muggings, and there are 35 per cent fewer shootings.

'Rather than ignoring minor crimes, police should arrest and severely punish "quality of life" criminals'

There are, however, problems with the system. Brutality complaints against the New York Police Department have soared, and some policemen now see their role as to oppress black communities.
However, both Home Secretary Michael Howard and his opposition counterpart Jack Straw are enthusiastic about certain aspects of it. Mr Howard believes a start could be made with measures against beggars and buskers and those who play loud music in cars, while Mr Straw quotes the example of Coventry, whose banning of public drinking of alcohol is credited with cleaning up the city centre. "There are similarities between New York and what's happening here," said Chief Supt. Birch. "We're both looking at how improving public hygiene can make people feel safer. It seems to work."


Zero-tolerance policies lack flexibility
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY 13.04.99

Lisa Smith was an honor student, a cheerleader and a Student Council member at Lakeview Middle School in the Dallas suburbs. She played violin in the school orchestra, won awards at the science fair and had just finished a highly praised project on the Holocaust for an honors history class. But, one mistake later, the eighth-grader who had never known trouble faces five months in a military-style boot camp. Her offense: She violated the school's "zero tolerance" policy by bringing to school a 20-ounce bottle of Cherry 7-Up mixed with a few drops of grain alcohol.
Under the school's policy, officials say, they were compelled to give the academic death sentence to Lisa, 14 - even if her only other trip to the principal's office was to organize an orchestra fund-raiser, even if she is, in the words of one teacher, "a sweetheart."

Lisa Smith's case is one of a growing number of examples in which zero-tolerance policies have been attacked as inflexible, harsh and lacking in common sense. The criticisms have increased in the past two years as zero-tolerance policies have become standard operating procedure in the nation's 109,000 public schools.
Supporters have credited zero-tolerance policies with helping make students feel safer in school, but such policies also have come under fire for their all-or-nothing approach. Even many supporters say the get-tough effort too often fails to differentiate between good kids who make the typical mistakes of adolescence and the unruly delinquents who can bring learning to a standstill.
Eighty-seven percent of all schools now have zero-tolerance policies for alcohol and drugs, often resulting in mandatory expulsion, no matter how small the infraction. Ninety-one percent of schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies for bringing a weapon to school.
But policies vary widely on the severity of the punishment and the discretion that school principals have.

Much of the criticism is aimed at the districts with the most rigid policies. Kids have been kicked out of school for possession of Midol, Tylenol, Alka Seltzer, cough drops and Scope mouthwash - contraband that violates zero-tolerance, anti-drug policies. Students have been expelled for Halloween costumes that included paper swords and fake spiked knuckles, as well as for possessing rubber bands, slingshots and toy guns - all violations of anti-weapons policies.
A second-grader from Alexandria, La., was booted for bringing her grandfather's gold-plated pocket watch to school; the timepiece had a tiny knife attached.

Supporters of policies that expel students for every offense say the policy might be painful but is needed to send an unambiguous message that drugs and weapons have no place in school.
But most of the nation's leading advocates of zero tolerance count themselves among those worried by the excesses. They say school administrators are undermining the credibility of zero-tolerance systems by pursuing silly cases and failing to understand that zero tolerance includes a range of punishments, including a note home or after-school detention.

Punish, don't destroy

"Zero tolerance and expulsion don't have to go hand in hand," says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake, Calif. "Zero tolerance simply means all misbehavior will have some sanction. It doesn't mean you bring the maximum punishment for every transgression."
"I'm terribly embarrassed when I read about some of these cases," says Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second largest teachers union, which has pushed hard for zero-tolerance policies. "These are examples of adults not exercising proper responsibility. I'm always in favor of just plain common sense."

In Lisa Smith's case, another eighth-grade girl brought alcohol to school the same day. That girl's mix of Kool-Aid and Bacardi rum, along with Lisa's concoction of Cherry 7-Up and grain alcohol, created quite a stir in the school cafeteria as students passed the drinks around.
Eleven girls got expelled. The girl who brought the rum accepted her sentence of expulsion and boot camp. Eight students said they didn't know the drinks contained alcohol, and their expulsions were overturned. One moved away. Lisa Smith hired a lawyer.
Her parents agree she should have been punished. They took away all her privileges - telephone, TV, stereo - and reduced her room to just a desk and a bed.
"Expulsion and boot camp? The punishment far exceeds the severity of the crime," says her father, Charlie Smith, a quality assurance inspector for an aerospace company.
"Punish her, yes, but don't try to destroy her. She made one mistake. She is not a juvenile delinquent," says Ann Smith, her mother.
Lisa says she stupidly brought the alcohol to school on a whim, just to see if she could get away with it. She poured the alcohol into the Cherry 7-Up while her mother waited for her in the car. Now she fears that her academic destiny will be permanently damaged by the severity of her punishment. "Just the term 'boot camp' scares me. I'm not a very physical person," she says.
Her lawyer, David McCreary, says the penalty was more severe than if she had been charged with a crime. If she had been convicted in juvenile court of underage possession of alcohol, she would have faced a ticket and a fine, not boot camp. School officials say they were just following the rules. Lisa was expelled because "that's what school board policies specify," says Lakeview Middle School Principal Steven Nauman, who has a doctorate in education.
"I have to agree with anything that's policy. My opinions are inconsequential. Citizens may not like speeding and no-parking signs, but we enforce them."
Lisa Smith's parents have asked a court to let her back in school on grounds she was not treated fairly.

Zero-tolerance policies started sweeping the country in 1994 after Congress required states to adopt laws that guaranteed one-year expulsions for any student who brought a firearm to school. All 50 states adopted such laws, which were required to receive federal funding.
Many legislatures went further, expanding the definition of a weapon and further limiting the discretion of school administrators.

No clear effect

Encouraged by teachers' unions and some parents groups, state legislatures and local school boards soon added zero-tolerance policies for alcohol, cigarettes, illegal drugs, gangs, fighting, cursing and prostitution.
National statistics are sketchy but show no clear effect of zero-tolerance policies when measured by the number of students who bring weapons to school (6%); students who are victims of violent crime at school (3%); or 12th-graders who have tried alcohol (81%), cigarettes (65%) or illegal drugs (54%).
Even under zero tolerance, most students don't get kicked out of school, even for the most serious offenses. According to a study in 1997 by the Department of Education, only 31% of students who brought a gun to school in 1995-96 were expelled. Forty-nine percent were suspended for five or more days, and 20% were transferred to alternative schools or programs. Only 18% of students committing a drug offense were expelled from schools with zero-tolerance policies.

In some cases, school administrators used their discretion to lessen the punishment. In other cases, the students couldn't be expelled because they were special-education students, classified as emotionally disturbed or suffering from attention deficit problems and protected by laws covering the disabled.

Knife in a lunchbox

Shanon Coslet , a 10-year-old at Twin Peaks Charter Academy in Longmont, Colo., was expelled because her mother had put a small knife in her lunchbox to cut an apple. When Shanon realized the knife might violate the school's zero-tolerance policy, she turned it in to a teacher, who told her she had done the right thing. The child was expelled.
Shanon's expulsion brought national ridicule to the St. Vrain Valley School District. She was featured on ABC's 20/20, which showed videotape of the little girl weeping as the school board debated her fate.
"The biggest lesson we learned is that these policies don't work when the message to principals and school administrators is 'You have no choice,'" says Robert Moderhak, assistant superintendent of St. Vrain Valley schools.
After the publicity, Shanon was allowed to return to school. She testified about her plight at a legislative hearing. Last year, the Colorado Legislature changed the law to give school administrators more discretion. A handful of other states and school districts also recently have given administrators more flexibility in setting punishments.

School administrators say many schools depend on inflexible zero-tolerance policies because officials fear being sued if they differentiate among students. The lawsuits invariably challenge the discipline process and whether the punishment is comparable with those given for similar offenses. To protect themselves, most school districts now have lengthy discipline codes that outline every offense and punishment, along with a detailed appeals process.

Parents quick to sue

"We live in a litigious society today," says Edward Kelly, superintendent of a 51,000-student system in Prince William County, Va., outside Washington, D.C. "In the old days, you could handle something on an individual basis. But today, parents are reluctant to accept a school's authority. They're quick to sue if they don't like a punishment."
Prince William has a 20-page Code of Behavior that outlines 47 categories of misbehavior and 26 possible punishments. The policy lists 39 banned weapons, including guns, poison gas, darts and wallet chains. The zero-tolerance policy applies to possession of items from drugs to Sony Walkmans.
"We were forced into developing these procedures by parents who will defend their kids to the nth degree rather than asking, 'What can I do about my child?' '' Kelly says.

Homer Kearns, superintendent of the 34,000-student Salem, Ore., school system and one of the earliest supporters of zero tolerance, says some school districts are too quick to expel students.
"It might be good public relations, but it doesn't deal with the real world. Our policy allows kids to make mistakes without ending their academic careers. You've got to be realistic. Kids make mistakes," Kearns says.
When a student is expelled in Salem, the school system retains responsibility for the child's education. It sends the student to a special program called a "structured learning system" in which good behavior can earn a student re-entry into regular schools.

The dangerous kids

But public schools wash their hands entirely of 40% of students expelled under zero tolerance, sending them home for good. The Prince William school system is one of those that sever their responsibility to expelled students.
"When you run alternative schools with an 8-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, that comes at a cost to the other students who are sitting in bigger classes. The good student is shortchanged," Kelly says. "There are kids who are dangerous. Is our greater responsibility to the one troubled kid or the 2,500 other students in high school?"

Arnold Goldstein, director of the Center for Research on Aggression at Syracuse University and a strong supporter of zero-tolerance policies, says the key to making the policy work is giving principals the discretion to exercise fairness and common sense.
"Punishment has three components: swiftness, certainty and severity," Goldstein says. "We've got the severity part down only too well, but we're not good on certainty and swiftness. And those are the parts that matter most to making zero-tolerance policies work.