Protect the Sheep from the Wolves, How Zero Tolerance Misses the Mark

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Do you remember Joe Clark? The principal portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movie "Lean on Me?"  One could say he was the personification of zero tolerance when it came to principals. During his first year he kicked out more than 300 students in one day for being tardy or absent, and as he put it, for being "disruptive." He would remove hundreds more over the next five years.

Quite frankly, I enjoyed the movie. It's Morgan Freeman after all.

How about the tense showdowns between Mr. Clark and the drug dealing gangbanger? Who wants those dangerous youth in the same school with our daughters and sons? I don't!

My adrenalin was pumping in that scene when Mr. Clark paraded all the gang banging, drug dealing and bullying students onto the stage and told them to get out. I clapped along with everyone else.

I love Hollywood. It overemphasizes parts of the truth to capture our attention, puts us on the edge of our seats, and helps us escape. The moment we step out of the theatre we return to reality. A reality in which there is no evidence that Mr. Clark improved the lives of students he kept on campus -- much less the ones he kicked out.

Three hundred students in one day? Really? Not even the police on our school campus' can find more than 25 students out of 1,200 who are the dangerous drug dealing and gang-banging type described by the movie. And Clayton County, Ga., where I live and work, is not known for its high socio-economics and low-crime rates. Nope -- we have the highest foreclosure rate, the most free school lunches, the highest unemployment rate and lowest medium income in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

When our school board acted crazy and caused our accreditation to be revoked, we were a laughing stock in the United States. People left Clayton County in droves.

Also, let’s not forget our last Sheriff, Victor Hill, and his antics that gave us national press coverage. Fugitives came to Clayton County because he wasn't executing warrants -- he wanted to be the chief of police instead. All that is gone now, but the damage is done. Clayton County is on a slow upswing for sure with our new leadership -- but the damage is not easy to repair.

Officer Robert Gardner, a veteran school police officer with Clayton County describes his student population using a lamb, sheep, and wolf allegory. Most of the student population is made up of sheep. They make noise, get into some trouble, but nothing major. They just make you mad from time to time.

The lambs are the nerds -- always quiet and under the radar. They make up about 25 percent, at most, of the population.

The wolves -- they are the dangerous students who come to school to wreak havoc and prey on others. They also make up no more than 2 percent of the population.

Gardner says his job is to focus on the wolves -- the predators -- the 2 percent. He says he can't do it if he is arresting sheep.

Zero tolerance policies do not discriminate. Everybody is arrested or suspended and this leads to bad outcomes beginning with an increase in drop-out rates and ultimately leading to an increase in community crime. Sometimes discrimination is a good thing.

"I can’t protect the sheep from the wolves if I spend more time arresting the sheep," says Gardner. "Its part of my job to discriminate against the wolves for the protection of the sheep and lambs."

The equal application of zero tolerance results in racial inequalities -- or maybe the racial inequalities is proof that zero tolerance is not equally applied. Regardless, the results are the same -- its zero intelligence.

Last week, I was invited by Daniel Losen to present before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Daniel published a report titled, "Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice," which surveyed the research showing the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance policies and provided recommendations to reverse the negative effects. One of my fellow presenters was Jonathan Brice of the Baltimore City School System. I met with Jonathan, juvenile judges, and law enforcement in Baltimore a couple years ago to discuss the push-out of students using arrests, suspensions, and expulsions.

Today, Baltimore City Schools, under the leadership of their superintendent, Andres Alonzo, and staff like Jonathan, have made drastic changes in how they respond to minor school offenses and infractions. For example, there are some offenses that do not result in suspension and others that will not get suspension for more than five days. Anything over five days must be approved by the superintendent.

Administrators and teachers engage students using the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports Model (PBIS). Instead of the Joe Clark approach, Baltimore now employs mediation, counseling, parent conferences and other resources to engage parents and students.

Alonzo says, "Kids come as is, and its our job to engage them."

Joe Clark took the easy road. He got rid of the wolves and a lot of sheep. Those lost sheep likely were devoured by the streets. They no longer had the protection of an educational environment -- the second best protective buffer against delinquency.

Mr. Alonzo took the more difficult road. He believes in zero tolerance when correctly applied. He won't hesitate to remove a wolf, but he works hard to engage the other 98% and keep them in school. Consequently, the drop-out rates have been cut in half and graduation rates have increased by 20%.

This business of juvenile justice is not exact, but it's not arbitrary either. We know alot more today about what works to reduce delinquency using social science methodologies.

It's analogous to surgery in a way. You don't remove the liver when it's the appendix that's about to burst. Similarly, you don't kill the sheep when the wolf is on the prey.

See more of Teske's work.

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