Schools should rethink ridiculous zero tolerance policies

Mary Dolan

The reasons for a student getting suspended are usually pretty standard: cheating on a test, disrespecting a teacher or bullying a student. But what about making a clock?

Ahmed Mohamed, a MacArthur High School freshman in Irving, Texas, was suspended after his school administrators accused him of bringing a “hoax bomb” to class after he insisted it was only a clock. While the confusion was thankfully cleared up, the over-the-top reaction to Mohamed’s clock was just another example of our schools’ ridiculous obsession with “zero tolerance” policies.

Zero tolerance policies punish students with suspension or expulsion for obvious crimes, such as selling drugs on school property. Unfortunately, these policies also punish students for more abstract offenses, such as shooting classmates with a Hello Kitty bubble gun.

Schools began to adopt zero tolerance policies after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. It made sense to help protect students and faculty by instituting policies that would punish students who could have similar plans in mind. As time went on, however, schools started cracking down on more and more ridiculous events, such as kids carrying water guns to school or doodling on desks. The ordeal with Mohamed’s clock is only the latest publicity-worthy incident.

Obviously, schools should have strict punishments set in place for students who carry drugs or weapons onto campus. But a little common sense could go a long way, as with the doodling incident, in which a seventh grade girl was led out of her classroom by police after writing her friends’ names on a desk.

Giving a seventh grade girl a detention for drawing on a desk is not a bad punishment. Giving her over to the police is. However, many schools would rather make examples of their students and do permanent damage to their records rather than give them punishments that fit their crimes.

This overzealous reaction tends to hurt students of color most of all. Some speculated that the reason Mohamed’s school was so quick to punish him was the fact that he is Muslim. Other zero tolerance detractors point to the fact that African-Americans make up 16 percent of U.S. students, but 32 percent of suspended students and 34 percent of expelled students. The Department of Justice and Department of Education have acknowledged the problem, saying,

“We have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students.”

In short, schools need to rethink their zero tolerance policies. While it is common sense to have policies that punish students for serious crimes, it is also common sense for schools to approach offenses such as doodling on school property with lighter reactions. All kids make mistakes, and schools should learn how to guide and discipline them more kindly instead of treating them like criminals for acting their age.

Dolan is a journalism sophomore from Abilene. Follow her on Twitter @mimimdolan.