The online magazine Slate ran a recent article on the impact of “zero tolerance” policies: Zero tolerance is an issue worth discussing, but Slate misses the mark by trying—without any evidence—to draw a link between exploding populations in juvenile detention centers and zero tolerance.
In fact, the phrase “zero tolerance” doesn’t usually refer to policies implemented by cops, prosecutors and prisons at all; instead, it describes how schools and districts deal with criminal and pseudo-criminal infractions by students (see the example of the kid with the non-marijuana in Slate). And parents should be at least as concerned about school discipline as criminal consequences; oftentimes, the criminal system is kinder to children than schools are.
A community can have the best police and prosecutors in the world and still groan under the weight of problems caused by zero tolerance. The ultimate decision about disciplining—or tolerating—a kid belongs to school officials, from lunch ladies through superintendents. Fifty bucks says that teen “sexting” scandal mentioned in Slate started with zero tolerance and zero thought in a school cafeteria.
Here’s what the National Association of School Psychologists found, after actually looking at data from the Department of Education: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/factsheets/zt_fs.aspx. Zero tolerance policies produce awful educational outcomes, uneven and biased approaches to student discipline, and potentially catastrophic results for students with learning disabilities. Zero tolerance policies are an education problem, not a law enforcement problem.
In Berks County, we are lucky enough to be served by the judge who cleaned up the “Kids for Cash” scandal: http://citizensvoice.com/news/luzerne-county-regains-control-of-juvenile-courts-1.1254028. The additional good news is that even kids who fall victim to zero tolerance policies can fight back. But the playing field is in the school, not the courts. And voters and parents must pay attention to their schools, school boards, candidates and disciplinary policies.
At MCR, we understand the juvenile justice system, the world of education, and where those two intersect. If you have a child who has been disciplined at school for an alleged crime, call our office for a consultation. A coordinated approach to school discipline and juvenile justice can make the difference between success and failure in a child’s case and life.