Zero-tolerance for kids is a fast and slippery slope to lock-up

Many people assume that when kids get into trouble while they are in school that they are sent to the principal’s office, held after school, or maybe even suspended. Another assumption is that school “zero tolerance” policies refer to situations in which student or faculty safety is at issue. But “zero tolerance” is actually a much stricter standard than many realize. It provides no opportunity for explanation, offers no permission for extraordinary circumstances, and often allow consequences that defy common sense.

It is not my intention to undermine the serious concerns we should all have as a result of numerous school shootings across the country. But as scary as they are, that is not the primary reason there are an average of 70,000 youth behind bars on any given day in America. The reality is that juvenile justice systems across the country are full of youth who have been referred from their schools. And the referrals are not for what you might think based on the violent stories we hear on the news. Unbeknownst to many, most referrals to juvenile court are for typical youth misbehavior such as minor fighting, being verbally disrespectful to a teacher, being playfully disruptive or even for just missing school.

Take for example a simple school fight between two 13-year-olds. Not one involving weapons – just a simple disagreement between two young people where one or both lose their composure and end up hitting each other with their hands, or throwing an object that makes contact with the other. Even if neither is physically harmed, they likely will be charged with some version of “assault.” Instead of resolving such a matter at school, both individuals (the initiator and the responder) may end up being taken to juvenile court.

Kids who are brought to the attention of the juvenile justice system are typically handcuffed, processed and brought before a judge. If they are lucky, maybe their case gets diverted so that they avoid formal processing. But if they are charged with a crime, they then enter a complicated web of scheduled court appearances, probation supervision, reporting requirements and are forced to agree to strict compliance with an unrealistic set of expectations (so unrealistic that most kids violate within a matter of weeks or months). Parents who want to be involved have no choice but to miss work (sometimes jeopardizing their jobs) to accompany their child to court, often on numerous occasions while the matter is pending – but this is another matter which should be considered separately.

More often than not, the youth referred to court end up being put on probation or community supervision. Probation, while seemingly an appropriate alternative to incarceration, often serves as a slippery slope or a gateway to stiffer penalties. The typical probation contract is so extensive that it virtually can be impossible to comply with; especially for youth who are struggling with trauma, family issues, or other challenges. In addition to regular check-ins with the assigned probation officer, youth have to promise to attend school, not be late, comply with a curfew, obey all rules of the house, and not get into any additional trouble. Adults likely would agree that such requirements seem appropriate. The challenge, however, lies in the response to a youth who slips up — which given their young age is inevitable.

When a youth on probation makes a mistake, the consequence is often incarceration. Whether they are late for curfew, miss an appointment, talk back to their parent, disagree with a step-parent, smoke marijuana, miss or are late to school, they face being locked up. And the reality from the data is that many youth are in fact confined for such infractions – even if not for the first violation (although there are number of situations where this is the case) more often than not after a repeated error. Seventy-five percent of youth currently incarcerated are there for non-violent offenses, including technical violations of probation. This means that a different response by schools to youth misbehavior could literally mean the difference between a young person getting a diploma or ending up on a fast track to jail.

Does anyone know what happened to the days when kids could be kids, when a school fight was just a school fight and when accountability was appropriate? When did adults and school officials decide it was acceptable to overreact to the slightest infraction, disrespectful comment or rude behavior from a teenager? Why exactly do we need “zero tolerance” especially when it puts so many kids into harm’s way? Who else thinks that it’s time for us to adopt a more common sense approach?

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at

The responsibility of educators to “do no harm”

“Do no harm” is an ethical principle most often regarded in connection with the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors. Essentially, it refers to the idea that professionals have a responsibility as part of their practice to refrain from actions that harm others. Given the growing number of school incidents, I wonder if this doctrine should be considered for educators as well as physicians? After all, the consequences of poor decisions towards students can be just as life altering for kids as doctors’ decisions can be for their patients. Young people spend a significant amount of time at school and are thus subject to the decision-making authority of adults who are not their parents. This places them in a particularly vulnerable position, especially when there is little to no oversight of administrative decisions.

As I reflect on the number of juvenile cases resulting from school infractions, it is evident that communities need to start paying more attention. Whether for truancy, disrespecting teachers, or minor school fights, zero-tolerance and other school policies often fail to adequately differentiate based on level of severity. Decisions are made by school administrators every day whether to resolve misbehavior themselves, or involve the police and subject our children to unnecessary court proceedings. A lawsuit reported this week underscores this very issue.

Parents of four African American youth filed an action against a school district in Ohio due to the expulsion of their children for making rap music videos. As with any court case, there are of course differing versions of the facts. The families assert that their children were unfairly targeted and accused of gang membership because they referred to themselves as the “money gang” and made “hand signs” in a self-made music video that they then posted online. The school district contends that the students were expelled due to “threats” made. The former defense attorney in me can’t help but distrust the school’s claim of “threats” as well as the characterization of adolescent expression as “gang related.” Either version of the story is problematic and calls into question school policies as well as the manner in which school administrations govern.

When parents send their children to school, they are entrusting educators with their most precious gifts. With this gift comes an important responsibility for a student’s well-being. In addition to teaching, school professionals are charged with care-taking as well as holding youth accountable. Because we all vary in our personal beliefs and customs in these areas, it is essential that communities reach some consensus on the expectations for and limitations of discipline. At a minimum, I would hope that we could all agree that educational professionals should at least be held to a standard of “doing no harm.”

The Ohio news story also brought to mind a report earlier this year concerning preschoolers. A parent of 3 and 4-year-old boys shared that her children had been suspended from pre-school eight times this year. I could not imagine what toddlers could do that warrants suspension? The 4-year threw a chair (but it did not hit anyone), the 3-year old hit a staff member on the arm and was labeled a “danger to the staff.” And yes, these kids are African American.

That report called attention to just how early a negative paper trail can be started and the implications on students’ educational future as a result of it. The story also highlighted the difference in treatment of the African American children in that jurisdiction based on information shared by other parents. During a birthday party, one mom revealed how the school had responded to her son in a more serious incident. Apparently her child intentionally threw something at another student who then had to be taken to the hospital, and yet her child was not suspended — “all [she] got was a phone call.” Her child was white. Other white parents shared similar experiences.

Although I mention only two stories, they are illustrative in that they raise a number of questions and red flags – some about appropriate response to expected youth misbehavior, and others about the impact of race and cultural competency (topics that I intend to explore in greater detail at a later time).

For today I offer this thought: shouldn’t schools have an obligation to resolve non-violent incidents in a way that provides appropriate consequence but without causing damage? The impact of disrupting a young person’s education with suspension, expulsion, or juvenile court involvement cannot be ignored. And shouldn’t such decisions if nothing else be equitable – similar consequences for similar behavior?

Whether pre-school tantrums or adolescent disruptiveness, there is a certain amount of misbehavior that is normal and age-appropriate and therefore to be expected. I’m not suggesting that the conduct be overlooked or go un-addressed, but rather that educators should be trained in appropriate and non-harmful responses. If you don’t want to deal with tantrums, perhaps you shouldn’t work with 3-year olds? And if you don’t want to deal with bad attitudes, teenage egos and playfulness, or a bit of rough-housing, then a career working with youth may not be for you?

I have the utmost respect for those who choose to work with our most valuable resources – our children. And I understand how challenging it can be. But for those who make that choice, communities should have the right to expect that these professionals are careful and responsible with their decisions. After all vulnerable lives are in their hands, and while no one should expect perfection, can we at least agree that they should do no harm? What do you think?

Tanya Washington is a social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq