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Zero Tolerance Defense

What does Texas and Afghanistan have in common? Both have systems in place that believe that punishing the innocent for the crimes of the guilty is not only permissible but is to be embraced so a message can be sent that any mistake whether intentional or not will be punished as harshly as possible. In Afghanistan this system is implemented by the Taliban. In Texas this system is administered by our public schools.

Since 1995 when Texas legislators declared zero tolerance on Texas public school campuses for drugs & weapons thousands of Texas schoolchildren each year have found themselves suspended and/or expelled through the guidance of chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code. Most of these students are sent to alternative education centers known as Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs (DAEPs) or Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEPs). The latest figures from 2006 show that 140,000 students in Texas were suspended or expelled for that school year. Education advocates estimate that 10% of these students were completely innocent of their purported offense. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and educational think tank institute reported that there was no probable cause for charges to be filed in approximately 1/3 of all the cases where children are arrested under Texas's current zero tolerance system.

Zero tolerance, as enforced in the majority of Texas public schools today, is a policy that punishes the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. It treats children as adult offenders without the presumption of innocence, disrupts the lives and educations of good students nearly as often as it does those of troubled students, and treats all covered offenses and all students equally, regardless of age, intent, past behavior, or magnitude of the offense. Think Salem witch trials but without the trial.

Zero tolerance policies for students adopt a theory of mandatory punishment that has been rejected by the adult criminal justice system because it is too harsh! Rather than having a variety of sanctions available for a range of school-based offenses, state law and school district policies apply the same expulsion rules to a six-year-old as to a 17-year-old; to the first time offender as to the chronic troublemaker; to the child with a gun as to the child with a Swiss Army knife.

Adults - especially those who teach children - are expected to have the skills and knowledge to teach behavior in age-appropriate ways. Unfortunately, zero tolerance as practiced in Texas today is not rooted in theories of child or adolescent development. It teaches children nothing about fairness & has created countless injustices across Texas since the policy was implemented in 1995.

When children in Texas public schools can be accused, found guilty, ticketed, often times arrested, and removed from school before parents are even notified of a problem, there is something intrinsically wrong with a system that claims to work in partnership with parents for the education and well being of their children.

On the face of it zero tolerance sounds like a simple solution to a complex problem. Most parents would agree that school is no place for drugs or weapons. However, when innocent children wind up in the juvenile justice system and/or severely punished for honest or minor childish mistakes the system is broken. Texas's current system falls into the severely broken category. Most parents don't think zero tolerance will ever affect their child's life.

Does zero tolerance work?

In one word “No.” In 2006 the American Psychological Association conducted a comprehensive study on zero tolerance. Texas A&M education professor Cecil R. Reynolds chaired the study. The APA study concluded, “Zero tolerance has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety.” "Zero tolerance has been implemented mindlessly," says professor Reynolds. "Anytime you take something as complex as the way children behave and apply something simplistic to it, you can't be doing a good job."

Although it seems intuitive that removing disruptive students from schools will improve the school experience for others and that severe punishment will improve the behavior of both the punished and those who witness the punishment, the APA task force report asserts that the available evidence “consistently flies in the face of these beliefs.”

Indeed, the APA task force found that zero tolerance polices may have actually increased disciplinary problems and dropout rates in middle and secondary schools, exacerbated the problem of over-representation of minority and emotionally disabled students in school discipline systems, and generated inappropriate consequences for younger children.

Zero tolerance-based punishments such as suspension and expulsion, the task force found, have not improved behavior or academic performance. In addition, by shifting the focus of discipline from schools to the juvenile justice system, zero tolerance policies are causing numerous adverse consequences for students, families, and communities.

Zero tolerance policies requiring suspension from school were found to be counterproductive on many levels: “School suspension in general appears to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended.”

Schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion had less satisfactory school climate ratings and school governance structures, and tended to spend a disproportionate amount of time on discipline. In the long term, school suspension and expulsion were associated with a higher school-dropout rate and failure to graduate on time.

As to academic performance, the report saw “a negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion and school-wide academic achievement.”

Concerning students with disabilities the report found that under zero tolerance policies, “students with disabilities, especially those with emotional and behavioral disorders, appear to be suspended and expelled at rates disproportionate to their representation in the population.”

The task force found these policies to be particularly inappropriate for younger pupils. “Zero tolerance policies as applied appear to run counter to our best knowledge of child development,” the report states, adding, “Zero tolerance policies can exacerbate both the normative challenges of early adolescence and the potential mismatch between the adolescent’s developmental stage and the structure of secondary schools.”

Regarding how zero tolerance policies have affected the relationship between education and the juvenile justice system, the task force found that the policies have increased the use of security technology, security personnel and profiling. However, it found no evidence that such programs result in safer schools or more satisfactory school climates.

Moreover, the task force found that zero tolerance policies have increased referrals to the juvenile justice system for infractions that were once handled in schools, resulting in the creation of a “school-to-prison pipeline.” And since it costs more to handle a child through the juvenile justice system than within the school system, said the report, “To the extent that school infractions lead to increased contact with the juvenile justice system, the cost of treatment appears to escalate dramatically.”

The task force expressed concern that zero tolerance policies, by increasing “student shame, alienation, rejection, and breaking of healthy adult bonds,” exacerbate negative mental-health outcomes for youth.

Further, the task force found little confirmation that zero tolerance has provided any positive effects for families or communities, and “no evidence indicating that the policies themselves have assisted parents … or that family units have been strengthened” through the use of the policies:

“As zero tolerance policies by nature do not provide guidance or instruction because they focus directly on punishment, such actions often are seen as unjust and may breed distrust of adult authority figures and nurture adversarial confrontational attitudes.

“By subjecting students to automatic punishments that do not take into account extenuating or mitigating circumstances, zero tolerance policies represent a lost moment to teach children respect and a missed chance to inspire their trust of authority figures.”

Dallas Zero Tolerance Defense: The Charles Johnson Law Firm

Texas parents should not have to worry when they send their children to school each morning that the next time they will see their child will be in juvenile detention or jail. Texas schoolchildren should not have to fear that if they make one innocent mistake that their world as they know it will be destroyed forever. Texas can maintain safe schools without turning into a police state that criminalizes innocent children simply for being children. 

Texas can and must do better by her children and families. If your family falls victim to this zealotry, Attorney Charles Johnson will be there to help.

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