Unraveling Zero Tolerance Documentary

Posted by Sue Dee

Feb 21, 2017 8:15:00 AM

Short documentary sheds light on shortcomings of a zero tolerance policy

You’ve seen the news headlines—fear and violence widespread in our schools. Some of you might have seen the movie, “Lean on Me ,” about the New Jersey school principal, Joe Clark, who took matters into his own hands to keep “those kids” out of his school. The response of “zero tolerance” made sense—or did it?

In only 12 minutes, you can learn a lot about how we got to where we are and how we might do something better for our youth.

A new documentary, “Unraveling Zero Tolerance,” produced by the Center for Public Integrity and Retro Report, underscores the growing problems with a zero tolerance policy and the criminalization of school behaviors.

In the video, former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder discusses his role in the rise of zero-tolerance policies, as well as his current view on what needs to change. He says that despite his initial support as deputy attorney general, examination of the data led him to believe that discipline needs to be put back in the hands of school officials and families.

The documentary sheds light on the outcomes of this popular policy—three million suspensions per year, arrests of tens of thousands of youth for routine school misbehaviors (as minor as kicking a garbage can) and a significant racial disparity with black youth more likely to be suspended or expelled. Suspensions and expulsions increase the likelihood of young people dropping out, which increases the likelihood of involvement with the criminal-justice system.

“Unraveling Zero Tolerance” highlights a school that does it differently. Furr High in Houston places an emphasis on academic sanctions, such as writing research papers. The school reports an increase in graduation rates from 57 percent in 2000 to 98 percent now. Furr put into place a student court and an approach to discipline that focuses on restoring relationships versus removing young people from school. The principal reports that “kindness is far better” than being punitive.

Holder feels “disruptive kids need more school, not less.” The practice of utilizing alternative schools for youth with behavior problems doesn’t go far enough to turn back what is lost for these young people. Many who work with juveniles understand that segregating them from pro-social peers and grouping them exclusively with those engaged in antisocial behavior makes continued bad conduct more likely. However, alternative schools are an improvement over expulsion since the young person is at least provided an opportunity for education and a potential path back to mainstream schools. Further work has to be done to put more students on that path.

Watch the video, and learn how zero tolerance has not been effective and has had far-reaching negative consequences. Decide if you are comfortable with the criminalization of school behaviors and the consequences it has on the youth and community. Then, consider reaching out to your school administration and school board. Let’s support our police so they can do their critical work and support our schools to do theirs. Then let’s educate each other about the difference. 

For more information, read how a school got it right with MST collaboration.

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Topics: School Safety