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'Zero Tolerance' Is Schools' First Line of Defense

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'Zero Tolerance' Is Schools' First Line of Defense

April 18, 2001
Urban PolicyOther

Kay S. Hymowitz is the author of "Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours." This is adapted from her article in the spring issue of City Journal.

The recent arrest of two 8-year-old Irvington, N.J., boys accused of making "terroristic threats" for pointing paper guns at their classmates have led many people to add "zero tolerance" to the list of things that the schools can't get right. A wave of these kinds of suspensions and arrests seems all the clumsier since, as experts are quick to remind us, the numbers show that school violence is on the wane.

Yet while events during the past month since 15-year-old Charles "Andy" Williams killed two classmates and wounded 13 other people in a shooting spree at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., may not justify arresting 8-year-olds playing "bang-bang you're dead," they do suggest that the decline in school violence may have more to do with students being quicker to report suspicious classmates and authorities taking those reports seriously than any lack of budding Klebolds and Harrises, the Columbine High School killers. In Santana's aftermath, a raft of students in communities ranging from New Canaan, Conn., to inner -city Houston threatened to follow Williams.

Sure, some of these kids, like the New Jersey boys, were harmless playground jokesters and braggarts. But it's not so easy to distinguish the prankster from the wild-eyed adolescent with a plan when lives are at stake.

Last week in a San Antonio high school, two vice principals received e-mails saying, "Watch the Sniper. You'll never know when we'll get you. We're coming behind you. You'll never know when the bullet hits." The 18-year-old accused of sending the e-mails insisted they were a "joke." Should authorities believe him? The day before Andy Williams killed two classmates, he had reassured friends he was only joking about pulling a Columbine.

In a staggering number of cases over this month, students appear to have been deadly serious. Right after the Santana shooting, at Twentynine Palms, Calif.-where Andy Williams lived until moving to Santee six months before the shooting-police nabbed two high school kids with a .22-caliber rifle and a hit list. And in El Cajon, Calif., just seven miles from Santee, an 18-year-old loner known as "the Rock" for his intimidating physique nearly succeeded in killing some of his classmates, opening fire with a shotgun in his high school, wounding three students and two teachers before police stopped him.

And the mayhem has continued. In the last few weeks, threats disrupted schools in Charlotte, Cincinnati, Newport News, Providence, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Louisville, several California counties and Omaha. Bomb threats closed schools in Westfield Township, Ohio, and close to home in Nyack in Rockland County, and Greenburgh, Harrison and Armonk in Westchester. On Long Island, officials in Roosevelt cancelled classes for two days earlier this month when a combination of fights, false fire alarms and bomb threats had rocked the town's junior-senior high school.

Administrators cannot comfort themselves by chalking these post-Santana incidents up to copy-cat behavior. There were five near-misses in the six weeks before Santana, none of which received national press coverage at the time. In those cases, the potential for carnage was huge: Police discovered guns, bombs, hit lists and school floor plans in the homes of the student suspects in Elmira, N.Y.; Palm Harbor, Fla.; Fort Collins, Col.; Hoyt, Kansas; and Cupertino, Calif.

From the point of view of teachers, administrators are hardly the zealous disciplinarians that some reports suggest. One study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation showed that nearly two-thirds of Texas public school teachers thought that teacher morale was worsening in their schools, and 40 percent of them cited "student attitudes and behavior" and administrative failure to address them as the principal reasons. "There are no serious consequences for bad behavior, vulgar language or rude treatment of teachers by students," one teacher lamented. "The students run our school," another wrote. In Boston, after a rash of attacks on teachers this year, the teachers' union did a survey showing that 58 percent of high school teachers and 40 percent of middle school teachers were dissatisfied with administrators' efforts to control school discipline.

And the problem is likely to get worse. The Connecticut Department of Education released a summary of disciplinary offenses in its public schools that included 2,000 or so first-graders, kindergartners and even preschoolers.

More zero-tolerance policies run amok? It doesn't seem like it. Jeanne Milstein, child advocate for the State of Connecticut, says that her office had received many reports about "out of control" tots hitting, biting and throwing things in inner-city and suburban schools. Though there's little solid data, Kristie Kauerz, an official at the Education Commission of the States, claims that there's enough anecdotal evidence to conclude that a growing number of unmanageable babes is now a nationwide trend.

In the end, zero tolerance may be more symptom than cure for the uneasy disciplinary climate of our schools. Certainly it's no final answer to out-of-control 5-year-olds or revenge-crazed teenagers. But as the threats continue and the bombs and guns appear, it's all we've got.