Zero-Tolerance Policies in U.S. Schools are Ineffective and Unaffordable

Despite public concerns about youth crime, particularly in schools, research has shown that policies based on incapacitation theory have failed utterly to affect crime rates. In fact, while youth crime rates have fallen significantly over the last 30 years, they have continued to plummet despite recent trends towards community-based alternatives (e.g., the ‘Missouri Model’). The evidence suggests that not only do punitive disciplinary approaches often fail they are also unnecessary. It is particularly troubling, then, to consider the police presence and draconian disciplinary measures that have increasingly found their way into America’s schools. Schools typically have rules forbidding mobile phone use, profanity and the like.

An Unjust Solution

Not long ago in Georgia, a six-year-old named Salecia Johnson was handcuffed and taken from her elementary school to the local police station. The school chose to do this, instead of sending her to time-out, or home to her parents or to the principal’s office. Zero tolerance in our schools has become an excuse for a blatant abdication of leadership, fairness, compassion, and common sense. When children are arrested for being children (Salecia apparently had a temper tantrum, something the local police in Millidgeville, Ga., figured out after they all went down to the station) who is impacted, what are the implications for our future, and what can we do? Increasingly, it is children with disabilities and minorities who are impacted the most.

Talking Back to Zero Tolerance

In the year that I have worked as a juvenile defender, I have noticed patterns in the types of cases that land on my desk.  For instance, now that the school year is in full swing, the overwhelming majority of my juvenile caseload arises from school discipline issues.  It seems — at least here in southeast Georgia — as though schools are either no longer interested or no longer equipped to handle discipline in-house. Almost every public school in my rural circuit has police presence in the form of the School Resource Officer (SRO), a uniformed police officer who maintains an office on the school campus.  These officers maintain such a vigilant school presence to deter criminal activity such as drug possession/sale, weapon possession and other violent or dangerous activity. The reality is quite different. Increasingly, local school administrators are relying on these SROs and a broad Georgia statute that criminalizes “disruption or interference with operation of public schools” to handle children with behavioral problems. What exactly are the definitions for “disruption” and “interference”?

Judge Teske Gives Voice to Juvenile Justice Reforms on National Stage

Regular JJIE contributor Judge Steve Teske was recently featured in The Washington Post for his crusade to end the school-to-prison-pipeline. The Post examines how Teske’s work to reduce schools’ referrals to juvenile court has gained a national audience.

Teske says zero tolerance policies have resulted in too many kids entering the juvenile justice system. In Teske’s opinion, “zero tolerance often means overpunishment for low-level misdeeds,” according to The Post. Because of that, he helped bring reforms to his home community of Clayton County, Ga., where Teske is chief juvenile judge. Since implementing the changes, juvenile crime has dropped, recidivism is down and graduation rates are up.

Teske, the story says, remains tough on crimes involving guns and drugs.

“The cases we have in court now are the burglars, the robbers — the kids who scare you, not the kids who make you mad,” Teske told The Post.

As Teske travels the country speaking about the need for reform, the success of Clayton County, The Post notes, is now inspiring communities in Connecticut, Indiana and Kansas, among others, to implement similar reforms.

And Teske is quick to point out his own teenage lapse in judgment, a school prank that today would have landed him in juvenile court. At 13, he pulled his school’s fire alarm but his principal insisted the school handle Teske’s punishment.

“Would I even be a judge today had I gone to jail that day?” he asked in The Post.

The Heavy Cost of a High School Drug Offense

The Washington Post has a story about the harsh realities of drug offenses, even minor ones, in high school. The story, by Donna St. George, focuses on a teen facing some slim college choices after school officials in Fairfax County, Va., imposed stiff penalties on him for bringing a device to school that is used for smoking marijuana. The point of the piece is to show how families, and now some school systems, are struggling with the repercussions of school policies that can vastly alter the lives of young people.

Gara LaMarche Says Time Is Right to End “Zero Tolerance” in Schools

It is too early to know whether the current wave of school reforms will lead to lasting improvements in student achievement. But it is not too early to note that many of these reforms have a troubling consequence: a doubling-down on harsh, ineffective zero-tolerance discipline policies. All too often, the debate about school reform has wrongly emphasized pushing troubled children out of school, rather than making systemic improvements so that all students have the support they need to learn. For that reason, advocates nationwide are embracing efforts to improve school climate. School leaders are recognizing the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance.

Dr.Phil to American Bar Association: Bullying Requires All Hands on Deck

A room full of lawyers got a strong message from Dr. Phil McGraw, TV’s family therapist.  There is “no safe place for kids anymore,” Dr. Phil told a panel on bullying at the American Bar Association’s Midyear Meeting. “Kids can’t go to their room to get away from [bullying],” he said in the videotaped address on Friday.  “Bullies can still get to them through Facebook and the Internet.”

Dr. Phil said the victims of bullying need help.  “We need all hands on deck,” he said.  “This needs to be addressed and this needs to be addressed now.”

Other panelists echoed the call to action.  Richard Katskee of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, called bullying a “systemic problem that requires a systemic response.”

“Punishing a bully is not enough,” he said.  “They need therapy to help end the behavior.”

“This is a time when we can make progress and institutionalize change,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington Counsel for the Anti-Defamation league. Watch this anti-bullying PSA produced by the ABA that was featured at the conference:

The ABA’s Commission on Youth at Risk is seizing the momentum.  They won support for a resolution to the House of Delegates that urges state and federal officials to take action in eliminating bullying. Dr. Phil called the resolution “top notch.”  Key points of the resolution include:

Discourages inappropriate referral of youth to juvenile court
Labels expulsion and out-of-school suspension “inappropriate” punishments
Urges officials to prevent the causes of bullying

The resolution also calls for the identification of victims of bullying, a departure from current zero-tolerance policies in schools that do not distinguish between the bully and the victim.  Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske advocates reversing these policies. “Zero tolerance policies are contrary to our fundamental right to self-defense,” Judge Teske writes in an op-ed on

In a panel discussion titled Bringing Youth Justice to Georgia, Judge Teske called for a reduction in school referrals to juvenile courts.

Judge Steve Teske: A Perfect Storm, An Imperfect System Equals Injustice

We moved to Clayton County, GA in 1974.  I was 14 years old.  I had lived in nine different cities from California to New York, and back to our southern roots when my father was transferred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. My childhood took me many places.  I met a lot of kids of all physical, emotional, spiritual, and social shapes and sizes.  Benjamin Disraeli once said that “Travel teaches toleration.”  In hindsight I must agree with the former British Prime Minister.  My travels have introduced me to different religious beliefs, political and social thoughts, and people of all colors and cultural backgrounds.  My childhood friends were white, black, red, yellow, and brown.  They were Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Christian of all denominations, atheist, and agnostic.  They came from families of varying political persuasions from conservative to liberal, from Republican to Democrat to Independent, and with economic tastes from capitalism to socialism in varying degrees. 

My many childhood friends from coast to coast in a thirteen year time span expanded my understanding of diversity and taught me to be tolerant of those with different cultures and beliefs.  However, toleration, I have learned, is a double edge sword.  In the words of Edmund Burke, “Toleration is good for all, or it is good for none.”  The determinative question when the tolerant sword is cutting is “Which side of the sword is doing the cutting?”  Is it the cutting edge that promotes the acceptance of people regardless of their differing beliefs or the edge that promotes the acquiescence of conduct hurtful toward others?  The former is good for al l, the latter is good for none. This concept of toleration raises an interesting paradox when applied to the arrest of kids on school campuses.  I think we can all agree that there should be no toleration of student disruption of any kind.  I helped to raise three children. They are now adults and doing quite well.  All my kids attended public schools.