Feature: The Zero-Tolerance Trap, How a policy meant to protect a school can ruin students’ lives
The following post if from Slate. It was written by Allie Gross.
By: Allie Gross
When Atiya Haynes’ grandfather gave her a pocketknife in July, she was hesitant to accept the gift. The 17-year-old didn’t want to think she needed a weapon for protection. But her grandfather said that was not a luxury the southwest Detroit native could afford. One of Haynes’ two summer jobs was as a lifeguard in the nearby suburb of Dearborn Heights, and to get to the pool she had to bike alone through some of the city’s rougher neighborhoods. Haynes humored her grandfather and slipped the pocketknife into her bag, along with a bevy of other teenage summer essentials: lotion, sandals, hair products, a swimsuit. She luckily never found herself in a threatening situation and, Haynes says, quickly forgot about the gift.
None of that mattered to vice principal Cheryl Howard, who found and confiscated the knife on Sept. 26, during a spontaneous bag search at the Annapolis High School senior’s homecoming football game. Though Haynes cooperated fully with the search, handing over her purse to Howard, according to Michigan state law she was in possession of a dangerous weapon, and the administrators asked her to leave the premises. When she showed up at school on Monday, Haynes was told she would be suspended for a mandatory 180 school days—in other words, the remainder of her senior year.
“I think they honestly thought in their mind, ‘this is the punishment’, ‘OK, goodbye’ and they thought we would just leave this alone. I don’t think they were expecting us to fight this,” Haynes’ mom, Guisa Bell, told me late last week, after a community dinner held in support of her daughter, who has become something of a local cause in Detroit. Bell, who immigrated to America from Ecuador when she was 6 years old, has given up a lot to ensure Haynes’ successful future. So, the notion that this Advanced Placement student with a 3.0 grade point average and dreams of attending Howard University would just clean out her locker and slink home was not only baffling to Bell, but unacceptable.
Haynes’ punishment is a byproduct of the Guns-Free Schools Act, which was adopted by the U.S. Congress in the early 1990s. Under the bill, states receiving federal funding for schools must have a law on their books mandating the expulsion of any student who brings a firearm onto campus or into a school zone. Michigan expanded its zero-tolerance legislation to include other dangerous weapons, such as brass knuckles, chains, and knives longer than 3 inches. (The blade on Haynes’ pocketknife was 3¼ inches.) If a student is found in possession of any of these, he or she is to beautomatically expelled not only from the district but from any school in the state. (Haynes’s 180-day suspension is effectively an expulsion, even though her lawyer and the board have been using the terms suspension and expulsion interchangeably. The law, however, calls for expulsion.) The student’s only option becomes “alternative schools,” which are campuses designed for “disruptive or dangerous” students. A 2013 research paper “Reconsidering Alternatives” found an overwhelming correlation between these alternative schools and their students ending up in prison, often called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” For example, the study found that 43 percent of middle-school students placed in alternative schools were detained in the juvenile justice system within two years.
Click here to read the rest.