Since its immersion into law through the 1994 Gun Free School Act, “zero tolerance” policies in regards to disciplinary action have been controversial as the initial emphasis for safer school environments free of weapons such as guns, knives, and explosives has transformed to become a mass generator of young disenfranchised Black and Brown men from the educational system to the prison system via the school-to-prison pipeline. As a provision of a larger mandate, the 1994 Gun Free School Act, heavily supported by then President Clinton, was signed into effect under the Improving America’s School Act of 1994, borrowed language from earlier political rhetoric to establish “zero tolerance” policies in regards to drug trade in the early 1980s. This language was later adopted by President Clinton (Martinez, 2009). Through President Clinton’s lens, this terminology would be extrapolated into the educational system to symbolize stricter reinforcement of disciplinary actions for severe behavioral infractions in order to quell the anxieties that existed in many American schools due to the rise in prominence of firearms in schools (Portner, 1994). Although its intention was to create safe school environments, it has been recently used as a tool to police young Black and Brown men. This begs the question how and why did schools respond to early 1980s federal laws on “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies? Furthermore, how have these practices affected the school-to-prison pipeline?
In response to the first question, I will argue that although the 1994 Gun Free School Act did not explicitly utilize the rhetoric of “zero tolerance”, this terminology was applied to the American school system as it symbolized the firm stance that was believed to be needed due to the increasing amount of weapons being brought into schools to enforce a strong, disciplinary ambience. The creation of the term, however, did not arise from this Act, but rather, it was borrowed from earlier struggles to deal with the booming drug trade in the United States. It was utilized as a mechanism to effectively discipline students believed to be serious offenders and threats to their school environments as this language could be applied to a wide variety of issues and settings due to the lack of definition of the term (Martinez, 2009). Secondly, I will argue that despite the intentions to create a safe school environment, the “zero tolerance” policy was adopted, due to federal mandates, to aid schools in the discipline of students, the policing of Black and Brown young men has contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline.
The War on Drugs, initiated under then-president Reagan, began the rhetoric that would later be utilized to enforce strict policies in school environments, although the principle and the practices created did not originally have the intention to be utilized under the school context. Because of the prominence of drugs, especially recreational drug use in young adolescents, this became a large concern of the American people. Through Reagan’s heavy emphasis on drug education programs and demonizing recreational drugs to young children, he coined the “zero tolerance” policy in efforts to quell the growing anxieties believed to be due to the rise of drugs’ pervasiveness in young children’s lives (Viadero & Crawford, 1986). This policy was meant to symbolize severe disciplinary actions and consequences for activities not deemed to be appropriate by government officials. Although these policies had intentions to protect children from illegal drugs and specifically crack cocaine, the creation of federal educational programs alongside a rhetoric focusing heavily on the ills and perils of drugs, this tactic employed by the Reagan administration utilized strict language to instill fear. This tactic proved to be beneficial and was continued to be used by Reagan’s successors because the policy heavily condemned the distribution, usage, and transportation of such illegal drugs as it placed heavy disciplinary action and federal laws on such activities (Viadero & Crawford, 1986). The War on Drugs, as described by Reagan, with policies such as the “zero tolerance” policy transcends not only the drug related crimes in the 1980s but could also be applied to other contexts because the language of “zero tolerance” policies, meant to signify little tolerance of infractions and poor behavior would be faced with severe consequences, did not explicitly pertain to any particular realm of public life and therefore, it could subsequently be applied to the educational system.
Reagan’s legacy only continued through the continuation of harsh disciplinary action in regards to drugs under Bush and ultimately through Clinton, who transformed the term of “zero tolerance” towards the restrictive disciplinary action needed in schools due to the rise of insecurity in school environments. Bush, a believer of Reagan’s stance in regards to drug related offenses pushed Reagan’s initial ideas even further by way of restricting federal funds from those not found to be complicit with the laws and regulations set by the federal government, “Every school, every college and university–and every workplace–must adopt tough but fair policies about drug use by students and employees. And those that will not adopt such policies will not get federal funds. Period” (Bush, 1989). This “tough but fair policies” terminology does not have strong parameters and little clarity regarding the definition of tough and fair, thus creating vague concepts for the policy and its implementation. In addition, the scare tactic created by refusing federal funds to those not found in compliance with the standards set by the government instills a strong coercive sentiment from those anticipating government funds. Bush, through his lack of clarity and seemingly imprecise language, adopted this language from Reagan and added modifications to place stronger responsibilities on drug education programs and schools for their enforcement of the standards advocated by the government. This usage of loose language for policy allowed for the eventual reinterpretation of “zero tolerance” into broader public scopes. This language employed by Bush during his presidency set the precedence for Clinton’s reinterpretation of “zero tolerance” policies.
Because of Clinton’s interpretation of the significance of “zero tolerance” policies, he was able to instill the rhetoric used during the War on Drugs to apply to the educational system through similar politics employed by Bush to transform the policy from drug related offenses to school related behavioral offenses. This is revealed through the Improving Schools Act of 1994. Through this Act, Clinton strived to create a school conducive to effective learning and school safety as demonstrated through many of the mandates. In particular, the provision focused on gun safety in schools, utilizes vague language to condemn weapons in schools, with strong consequences for those not found in compliance with the rules, not only punishable for students with weapons but also the schools, “Requires states to enact laws, and districts to enact policies, expelling for a year students who bring guns to school. Allows local officials to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. Requires districts to refer such students to the criminal-justice or juvenile-delinquency systems” (Improving Schools Act, 1994). This interpretation by the Clinton administration of earlier “zero tolerance” policies places onus on schools to enforce this disciplinary action in order to maintain federal funds. In addition, although the terminology is not utilized explicitly in this mandate, the sentiment is still in effect as this requires schools to take these behavioral infractions seriously because there will be federal consequences, leaving schools with little options but to comply with this mandate. In this way, Clinton reimagined “zero tolerance” by firstly introducing these policies into the educational system but also through placing heavy responsibility on schools to comply with the standards set by the Act.
Additionally, Clinton’s zero tolerance policy extended not only to enforce strict laws regarding weapons within the school environment, but also to the ideals of appropriate students through their activities and their dress. This is evident through his 1996 presidential campaign, in which the phrase “zero tolerance” was only utilized once, however, the forcefulness and lack of deviation from the standards to be implemented gave schools very little options, thus creating obligations to enforce strict disciplinary action for minute offenses such as dress code and attendance violations. In his campaign, Clinton emphasized standards for appropriate conduct, as mentioned:
“No student should be so afraid that he or she cannot learn. We are working very hard to preserve funding for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program and to enforce our policy of zero tolerance for guns in schools….Too often, we learn that students are turning to violence and theft simply to obtain designer clothes and fancy sneakers– or that items of clothing worn to school, bearing special colors or insignia, are used to identify gang membership or to instill fear among students and teachers alike. If student uniforms can help deter school violence, promote discipline, and offer a better learning environment, then we should offer our strong support to the schools and parents that try them. Consequently, we have distributed a new manual on school uniforms to every one of the nation’s 16,000 school districts, providing a central source of information about successful school uniform program” (Clinton, 1996).
Through his depiction of appropriate and inappropriate forms of school dress and conduct, Clinton sends explicit messages about the types of students that are in need of “zero tolerance” policies in order to ensure that these practices of ill dress and criminal activity are quelled from the school environment. Though he does not explicitly mention Black and Brown urban youth, his criminalization of believed gang apparel, theft, and overall style of dress have been stereotypically attributed to urban, poor people of color. This would later lead to the disproportionality of Black and Brown youth in the prison system via the school-to-prison pipeline because of these images about the types of people who are likely to violate these school policies. Furthermore, his idea for creating a culture of appropriate conduct in schools, is one with a one dimensional solution as he attributes uniforms and strict policies regarding possessions of weapons within schools to the eradication of improper conduct. Finally, like his predecessors, Clinton vaguely alludes to federal funds supporting those schools and districts that properly implement his policies, thus forcing schools to have to uphold these standards out of necessity rather than agreeance to the policies. Though he did not overtly mention “zero tolerance” policies in this statement, the sentiment permeated his language due to the enticement of schools to create these policies due to an increase in funds and the transformation of “zero tolerance” policies to not only apply to weapon possession but also exert control over students’ physical bodies through dress.
Although it has been discussed that “zero tolerance” policies were intended to specifically target gun possession in schools, as demonstrated with the language utilized by the Clinton administration through his 1996 Presidential campaign, “zero tolerance” policies’ implementations in schools were not equitably, nor conditionally applied in all schools across the country. Despite the mandates for all schools to have these policies ingrained in their schools, the implementation of these policies lacked uniformity due to the lack of clear understanding of “zero tolerance” and a set of applicable areas, therefore, allowing different schools to apply these policies differently, for different offenses. For example, the rhetoric utilized in the legislation experienced a shift from initially “firearm” to “weapon” (Martinez, 2009). This small shift in the language encompasses a much larger range of unacceptable behaviors. By changing the legislation from “firearm” to “weapon”, a larger amount of items could be classified as a “weapon” and as “weapon” is a much more subjective term. This term lacks a universal understanding due to different perceptions regarding a “weapon”. This gives school officials more freedom in their determination if a student possesses a “weapon”, different than a “firearm” because a “firearm” has a set definition, perception and physical appearance. Additionally, as reported by Martinez in her study of the effectiveness of “zero tolerance” policies, the utilization of these policies varied nationwide, dependent on the school, “In addition, 94% of schools targeted firearms and weapons, 88% targeted drugs, 87% targeted alcohol, and 79% targeted fights (Casella). In 1997, drugs were added to the policy (Casella). Beginning in 1999, some schools included swearing, truancy, insubordination, disrespect, and dress-code violation (Axman, 2005, Essex, 2004; Skiba, 2000; Wald, 2001) in their policies” (Martinez, 2009). This is indicative of the lack of uniformity in application of these policies, therefore, allowing a large range of behaviors to be subjectively deemed inappropriate and dangerous to the school environment.
Though the criminalization of Black men existed prior to the creation of “zero tolerance” policies, these policies proved to target Black youth, in a way that was uncharacteristic of the prior mechanisms to criminalize this group by way of the educational system. Though Black men have long been sought after for disciplinary consequences, dating to the Civil Rights Era and prior, “zero tolerance” policies in the educational system directed criminalization to a new demographic that had not been as heavily policed, young Black men in schools. As mentioned previously, as “zero tolerance” policies transformed from drug related offenses to weapon related offenses to any behavioral offenses, not limited to dress and conduct, this broadened the number of acts that could be considered criminal through the lens of the policy. This form of social control comes at the cost of the livelihoods of Black and Brown youth as the vagueness of “zero tolerance” policies and their enforcement may result in severe consequences for minor infractions (Triplett, Allen & Lewis, 2014). This is indicative by the rate of suspension and expulsion of Black and Brown youth, “Although African American boys comprised 17% of Oakland Unified School District student population in 2010–11, they constituted 42% of students suspended (Urban Strategies Council, 2012, p. 6). Nearly one in ten African American boys in elementary school, one in three in middle school, and one in five in high school were suspended in 2010–11 (p. 6).” (Brown, 2014). Although this statistic is utilized within the context of Oakland, California, this is representative of the nation as a whole. Additionally, this is demonstrative of the severe behavioral consequences that Black youth are disproportionately shortchanged by that leads to interruptions in their education and ultimately, to their livelihoods. Through “zero tolerance” policies in schooling, school discipline has shifted to penalize students of color has become a gateway to the prison system.
As “zero tolerance” policies have evolved over time, their consequences have also changed due to the change in target of the policy. In its initial form, “zero tolerance” policies were meant to discipline those involved in the booming drug trade in the 1980s, however, as drugs were believed to be infiltrating the educational system, “zero tolerance” was extrapolated to apply to drug related offenses in the educational system. This was first initiated under then-president Ronald Reagan, who sought to bring relief and tough disciplinary action to those found not in compliance with the standards set by “zero tolerance” policies. Shortly thereafter, the Bush administration sought to more fully extend the ideas of his predecessor by coupling this policy with federal funds. Federal funds would be given to schools that featured “zero tolerance” policies in regards to drug related behaviors. In addition, programs that illustrated drug education too would be given federal aid. Under Clinton, following the ideals set by both Reagan and Bush, this rhetoric was used to enforce strict disciplinary action for students considered to be threats to their school environment for their gun possession. However, with an increase in gun violence in schools nationwide, this policy was again reformed to apply to a more expansive list of weapons in order to create a safer school environment. Although it was intended to create a safer school environment, under Clinton, it was again modified to apply to a larger range of school behavior and conduct. This change in “zero tolerance” policies came with heavy consequences for students of color, as these students, and predominantly Black and Brown young men became the target of this policy as a social control tactic. This has lead to the large increase of Black and Brown young men found in the prison system via the school-to-prison pipeline. The evolution of “zero tolerance” policies has demonstrated that although policies may have intentions to be beneficial, in practice, these policies may have adverse effects and lead to a lower quality of life despite intentions to better lives.
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