The Zero Tolerance/ Mandatory Minimum Follies

Hi Readers — I like this article in the current Economist, “School Discipline: The Perils of Peanut Tossing,” because it nails something that has gone sort of unnoticed. Not just that when schools suspend kids willy-nilly for minor infractions they often end up harming the kid far more than helping the school. No, it also points out that Zero Tolerance laws are as obtuse, cruel and pointless as our Mandatory Minimums. Both these travesties REFUSE to take into account any of the actual circumstances, and vastly overreact to small, even non-existent “dangers.” Once again, the Free-Range mantra, “Our kids are not in constant danger!” is what’s needed. When a Pop Tart “gun” and normal horseplay are elevated to crimes, we are hallucinating danger and responding with overkill.

When pupils get in trouble for silly reasons, the results can be serious

EARLIER this autumn a school in Canon City, Colorado suspended Hunter Yelton for violating its sexual-harassment policy. His crime? Kissing a girl on the hand. Hunter is six years old. Other dangerous acts that have warranted suspension in schools across the land include chomping a Pop-Tart (an American breakfast pastry) into the shape of a gun, firing an imaginary bow-and-arrow and talking about shooting a Hello Kitty soap-bubble gun. In Mississippi, infractions serious enough to bring in the police include wearing the wrong shoes (a five-year-old boys school dress code mandated black shoes; his mother used a marker to blacken his red-and-white shoes, but apparently bits of red and white could still be seen) and wearing the wrong socks. Five pupils tossing peanuts at each other in the back of a school bus ended up charged with felony assault when one of the nuts hit the driver.

Many of these students attend schools with zero-tolerance policies, which have been around for years; some date their inception to the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which required schools receiving federal funds to expel pupils who brought in firearms. According to John Whitehead, founding lawyer of the Rutherford Institute, a law firm focused on civil liberties, they really began proliferating after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Like the mandatory-minimum sentences established by Congress at the height of the drug war, zero-tolerance policies in schools were intended to make sure that all bad behaviour drew a uniform response. Instead, also like mandatory minimums, the responses they mandate are often wildly disproportionate to the offences committed; they do little, if anything, to improve discipline; and they can cause lasting harm to pupils.

Read more here.

Howdy, kids!

Howdy, kids!

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20 Responses to The Zero Tolerance/ Mandatory Minimum Follies

  1. SOA December 22, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    I hate zero tolerance laws. They make no sense. A kid gets the same punishment for bringing some Midol to school as if they brought meth. How is that fair? If a kid gets beat up by 3 bullies for being nothing but an uncool kid, he also gets suspended. They suspend all parties in a fight even if one party just gets in a ball while the other parties beat them. Saw this happen when I was in school. Same with the kids getting busted for having midol, aspirin, tylenol just like it was hard illegal drugs.

    Seen kids almost die or heard of kids dying because their rescue meds like epipens or inhalers had to be locked up in the office and they could not get them quickly or no one was there to open the safe when they came to get them.

    The whole thing is a joke. My son was a victim of it because he is a 5 year old with autism. Obviously you would think kids with special needs would not apply to zero tolerance but it still applies to them. When he struck his teacher he was still suspended for multiple days. But there is a difference in a kid with autism hitting a teacher because he was in the midst of an over stimulation tantrum and a kid just doing it to be a jerk. The teachers and administrators told me they knew he could not help it, but their hands were tied that because of zero tolerance they had no choice but to suspend a 5 year old child with autism.

    Luckily I beat the system on that eventually and this year there have been no suspensions. It was clear his needs were not being met and he should never have been even allowed to get to the point he was hitting a teacher. So now that his needs are met properly, he has had no incidents.

    The whole thing is nuts. There is no room for judgment or common sense. Kids with straight A’s and not a single detention get expelled for bringing tylenol to school. It makes zero sense.

  2. Patti Jo December 22, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    While I’m disturb by a a lot of this zero-tolerance nonsense I have found out lately that it is important to get all the info on a situation before making a judgment. I live in Canon City, Co. A family friend is a student in Hunter’s class. It is important to know that sexual-harassment was dropped from his school record (this charge is what had me the most concerned about the situation), in addition this was not a one time incident but an ongoing problem with this child (he boy is constant disturbance in the classroom and the girl and her mother have complained numerous times all year) in school. Which the principal had been working on dealing with all year long with no appropriate response from his parents and no change in behavior which finally brought it to an escalation point of suspension. The only story that was told was the twisted story of the boy’s mother who either can’t or won’t teach her son boundaries and discipline.

  3. Sarah December 22, 2013 at 11:32 am #

    As a teacher, I’ve seen high school kids suspended with the zero tolerance for insane reasons. It is detrimental to their education as they are not provided services while suspended and I have been discouraged from suggesting meeting at a public location to help keep them on track.

    While there are always two sides to every story and we very rarely hear the whole truth since they are minors, it’s hard to decide how to feel. However, I’ve seen parents fight and the ten day sentence get reduced to two. So, if the parents are willing to fight and speak up, zero tolerance policies seem to decrease!

    My high school students have an issue with the whole fight thing. They agree that the student being hit should not be suspended, especially if they are curled up in a ball. Again, we never know if the kid instigated the fight to get the others suspended, but if they are in a ball my bet would be not!

    I know in our state, students who receive services under the special education laws do not fall under the zero tolerance. They get “reduced sentences” if the “crime” is something they can “control” and they receive home bound teachers while out.

  4. Kimberly Herbert December 22, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Sometimes you hurt your own case. Hunter Yelton was NOT suspended for kissing a girl on the hand. He was suspended for bullying a girl repeatedly over the course of the semester – despite being reprimanded for inappropriately touching the victim and threatening other kids who tried to play with her, who was afraid to go to school because of his actions.

    I think the district suspended him in part because his PARENTS did not correct the behavior despite other consequences. His mother is even going with the classic “The victim wanted him to kiss her – she liked it”. All that is missing is “she was dressed like a slut”

    I spent K – 5 being beaten, called names, and threaten with graphic descriptions of rape. No-one believed me or the other girls (well on JH teacher did but he was in in private school then). If they had maybe he would have gotten help. Maybe the women he later beat half to death and raped horribly wouldn’t have had to suffer.

  5. Donna December 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    I think the author conflated two issues – First, punishing for things that don’t deserve any kind of punishment whatsoever. The pop tart, bubble gun threats, imaginary bows and arrows. Second, way over-punishing for things. The 6 year old kisser and the boys throwing peanuts.

    The first seems to be very rare. It is like abduction. We read about it because it is so outrageous and uncommon, not because it is happening constantly.

    The second is very common in schools. We hear about extreme examples but it actually happens every day and the main recipients are low socio-economic level boys, a demographic that is dominated by people of color. Some of this is due to the great level of dysfunction in households in that demographic that leads to behavior problems in school in much higher levels, but some is simple prejudice against the poor and/or people of color and the belief that they are one step from prison anyway.

  6. Scott Lazarowitz December 22, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    I think that if we abolish government-run schools, much of this craziness would stop.

  7. Christine Hancock December 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    I have a personal zero tolerance story.

    I was ten and got picked on frequently. One day most everyone that enjoyed seeing my pain surrounded me and one of them punched me in the gut, knocking the wind out of me. I cried a little, but that kind of thing had happened to me before a few times, and once the crowd dispersed, I figured I was ok and continued about my usual routine, never thinking to report the matter.

    The next day I went to school, as usual and was told I’d been suspended and to go home. Turns out someone did see and thought the situation deserved reporting.

    My mom told me years later that in conference with the principal and teachers, they had told her that they didn’t think I started the “fight” and that it was wrong to suspend me, but rules were rules. And of course, right or wrong, all policies must be followed.

    Although the suspension was unjust, I thought it was fun to have the extra day off. I didn’t like going to school anyway.

  8. SteveS December 22, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    I had heard the same thing in regards to the “hand kisser” and it did seem like an appropriate punishment. Zero tolerance rules are still a problem. In Michigan, the mandatory expulsion for bringing a weapon to school includes more than just firearms…nail files, small pocket knives, and similar objects. While a punishment may be necessary, I don’t believe that being kicked out of school is the answer for every violator.

  9. Papilio December 22, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    Wow – with every blogpost I understand better why…:

    I thought your jails were overcrowded already?

    “they should call in the police only as a last resort, and only in cases involving real weapons”

    Brilliant. I bet he’s also close to realizing wheels work much better when they’re round instead of square…
    [sorry for the sarcasm – it seems I can’t switch it off for the moment…]

  10. Asya December 22, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    I was bullied in 4-5 grades. Amidst a “colorful” (I guess I’m translucent?) rainbow of a poor public grade school, I was a great target. After a year of spitting, name calling, and overall bullying, the teachers were used to the antics, but the “children of color” never reprimanded. I use sarcasm because I learned every diversity sob story, but I guess my bullying did not warrant action, since I wasn’t “colorful” enough for teachers to take it seriously, despite being in the racial minority. So it escalated one day to being cornered and told disgusting remarks by a threesome. I had enough and slapped the boy (like a fly) on the shoulder after he stuck his head and hands near my face. He made a “evil translucent girl hit me” face and acted like I dislocated his shoulder. The teacher handed me a dreaded “refocus form,” a blue slip on which the transgressor wrote out his crimes. Forget the year of threats, spitting, name calling, cheating, and almost sexual-like harassment– I dared to “hit” someone, a “colorful” one at that!!! Zero tolerance for violence! My little 10-year-old self clenched the pencil and proudly wrote out her crimes (passive aggressively) without a single tear and smugly gave it to the teacher. The bullying ended after that. By the spring, we became cordial.

    Nowadays… The slap would mean a court order. A punch (that I wish I just did at the start), a prison sentence and expulsion! I am surprised it was not the case in 2002.

  11. Maggie December 22, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    An 18 year old ADULT woman with cramps brings an over-the-counter medicine to school, or the highly allergic or severely asthmatic chooses to be safe by keeping their life-saving drug on their person.

    And they are treated like criminals, with the same as punishment that the kid selling meth, shooting heroin, or dropping acid.

    This ONLY happens in schools. It’s completely unrealistic and unbelievable in the real world. We would be up in arms and protest loudly if these rules where applied anywhere else.

    How does it help? What does it teach our kids? That an over the counter or life-saving drug is equivalent to meth or heroin? It’s asinine.

  12. SKL December 22, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

    Ack! Off topic, but I had to post here. I just saw an ad on facebook: “The Gift of Safety.” Naturally I had to see what it was. It was some tool to search online for felonies. LOL. Just what we needed to ensure the holidays are full of peace and joy!

  13. baby-paramedic December 22, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    I had this big long story, but really, it all boils down to this.

    The concept of self-defense exists in the real world, so why not in schools?

  14. vas December 22, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Lenore, did you by chance read Bruce Schneier’s article “Our Newfound Fear of Risk” at ?

  15. C. S. P. Schofield December 23, 2013 at 12:48 am #

    Petty government functionaries LOVE “Zero Tolerance” policies because they allow said functionaries to bully people without having to face any consequences. “It’s policy!”. The policy may be, and all too often is, ham-handed, idiotic, dangerous, and vile. The answer to “It’s policy”, then, is “OK, who signed off on that policy, and why is he still employed?”

  16. BL December 23, 2013 at 6:06 am #

    “It’s asinine.”

    No, it’s EVIL.

    The first step in oveturning this sort of thing is calling it what it is.

  17. Neil M December 23, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    “Zero tolerance” really means “zero discretion”, which leads to school administrators who must treat a thrown paper airplane the same way they’d treat a thrown knife. It’s crazy, and this kind of criminalization hurts children in ways that can be surprisingly cruel.

    For those who are interested, I recommend the book, “Kids for Cash”, the chronicle of the Luzerne County judges who were sending kids convicted for trifling offenses to a privately owned detention center in return for kickbacks. In short, they were selling children into prison. That is just evil, plain and simple.

  18. K December 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    The headlines have been misleading in theme case of hunter Yelton. He wasn’t suspended for kissing a girl on the hand one time, he was suspended for repeatedly touching another child in an unwelcome way, after being told to stop. I have a boy and a girl and it’s important to me that they both feel that their words have power, that if they tell someone to stop doing something because they don’t like it, that person will STOP, AND that when a person says stop, you should listen. I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking people can touch her just because they want to. People think this is cute because the boy is six, but he needs to learn boundaries. If one of my coworkers kept touching me and I didn’t want him to, who would think that was cute?

  19. marie December 23, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

    The article makes an excellent point when it draws a parallel between zero tolerance rules and mandatory minimum laws.

    Both are evil (thank you, BL!).

  20. Tsu Dho Nimh January 1, 2014 at 7:54 pm #


    I have zero tolerance for a few things – horseplay in shop or chemistry classes, anything that looks like definite physical endangerment or harassment – but hand-kissing?

    Maybe the kid had seen some old movie, or even Titanic, where the hero kisses the hand of the heroine? Or Cinderella, from Disney, with the prince kissing the hand of Cinderella?