Zero Sense

By Bryan Toporek — February 18, 2010 1 min read
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Sure, writing on a desk may not be something you want kids to do, but few people would consider it a crime, right? Tell that to 12-year-old Alexa Gonzalez. She was taken out of her New York City classroom in handcuffs earlier this month for writing “I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here 2/1/10 :)” on her desk, according to a story by CNN.

“They put the handcuffs on me, and I couldn’t believe it,” Alexa recalled. “I didn’t want them to see me being handcuffed, thinking I’m a bad person.”

Alexa’s school is one of many across the country that has implemented zero tolerance disciplinary policies to ensure safety and security in schools. Now, the case is being discussed by critics of zero tolerance policies as an example of how these policies have gone too far to punish students.

“We are arresting them at younger and younger ages [in cases] that used to be covered with a trip to the principal’s office, not sending children to jail,” said Emma Jordan-Simpson, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund.

In fact, by over-punishing students for petty crimes like doodling, some advocates warn that these policies, designed to keep schools safer and increase student attendance, could have the direct opposite effect.

“If they have been suspended once, their likelihood of being pushed out of the school increases,” said Donna Lieberman, an attorney with the New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. “They may end up in jail at some point in their life.” (A January 2010 study from the Advancement Project found that time spent away from school increases the chances a child will drop out and end up in jail.)

Some, like Georgia juvenile court judge Steven Teske, believe zero tolerance policies should be a last resort. In 2003, Teske created a program to distinguish felonies from misdemeanors for his local school district; as a result, the number of students detained by the district dropped 83 percent.

“There is zero intelligence when you start applying zero tolerance across the board,” he said. “Stupid and ridiculous things start happening.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.