By A.P. Dillon
The term “Zero Tolerance,” as it applies to school policies, is well known in society. Examples that might come to mind include a seven-year-old being suspended for eating a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun or a teen being suspended for wearing an American flag shirt.
While the notion of Zero Tolerance is understood, the roots of it generally are not. It is important to understand where the term originated. Zero Tolerance is now being used to further the narrative of a “school to prison pipeline” and the subsequent calls for the removal of police presence in schools or the removal of School Resource Officers (SROs). We’ll get into the “school to prison” pipeline later. First, let’s look at Zero Tolerance.
Zero Tolerance traces back to the 1980’s when it was a term applied to the “war on drugs.” This term found its way into education by the beginning of the 1990s – with the full approval of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
At the 1994 AFT convention, members passed a resolution calling for Zero Tolerance policies to be employed with regard to school violence. It called for the mandatory expulsion of students who assaulted teachers or students, or who were found to be in possession of drugs or weapons.
Not long after, California Democratic U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein pushed an amendment to the “Goals 2000” education bill. The amendment required school districts to expel any student caught with a gun on campus for one year. The catch was that Goals 2000 did not have mandatory state participation and it was then added to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). A year later, in 1995, the Gun Free Schools Act would come into play as a widely used form of Zero Tolerance.
Early on, Zero Tolerance policies were heavy in the area of truancy. From there, policies morphed into more and more severely lop-sided punishments for what many would consider minor infractions. The Zero Tolerance policy idea hamstrung any local control over discipline and related decision-making and threw common sense out the window.
Having said that, the original intent of Zero Tolerance – the expulsion for violent acts or weapons – has seemingly had very little impact on crime in schools. Back in November I wrote about the increasing frequency of police being called to Wake County Schools and how fights were becoming “normal” occurrences. Clearly, Zero Tolerance was not playing much of a role in curbing such instances.
So how does Zero Tolerance fit in with the “school to prison pipeline”? The answer lies in a paper from 2009 by Nancy Heitzag in which the school-to-prison pipeline phrase started to gain momentum. The main thrust of Heitzag’s paper is that Zero Tolerance disproportionately punished minority students, especially black students.
Heitzag has a Ph.D and is a professor of sociology, and a co-director of the interdisciplinary Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity Program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Heitzag’s ideas on the so-called pipeline will be included in a book due out this April.
Heitzag seems to be just as much an activist as sociologist. She is an editor at Critical Mass Progress, a very left-leaning web-based organization focused on racial and social justice activism in education. Be sure to read the Principles, Priorities and Responsibilities section of its About page. Her Twitter account’s banner states, “Critical Mass Progress” and “Educate, Agitate, Organize”.
Heitzag has also been involved in the school-to-prison pipeline movement trying to oust SROs from schools as evidenced by her involvement with the Twin Cities Social Justice Education Fair. If you have any doubt that it is all about the promotion of social justice activism in our schools, read the “Vision and Goals” statement of the Twin Cities Education Justice Fair, which openly advocates infusing social justice into curriculum.
In the opening of her 2009 paper, “Education Or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies And The School To Prison Pipeline,” Heitzag quotes the NAACP’s the original use and definition of the phrase:
“In the last decade, the punitive and overzealous tools and approaches of the modern criminal justice system have seeped into our schools, serving to remove children from mainstream educational environments and funnel them onto a one-way path toward prison…. The School-to-Prison Pipeline is one of the most urgent challenges in education today.” (NAACP 2005)
Heitzag goes on to blame No Child Left Behind, poverty, systemic racism and blacks being automatically associated with gangs as causes of the “pipeline.” Heitzag never delves into the actual crimes, behavior or incidents, but rather she brushes facts aside. She asserts it must be racism and states, “These racial disparities cannot be explained by differences in behavior; they must be explained by differential enforcement of zero tolerance policies.”
Activists are now using the term “school to prison pipeline” with greater frequency and connections have been established between “pipeline” activist groups and Black Lives Matter.
An example of such a local connection goes back to 2014, when a group called NC HEAT showed up at a Wake County School Board meeting. ABC 11 covered the event, and showed protesters speaking while clad in orange jumpsuits:
“In Wake County, black students make up 25 percent of the student body, and over 60 percent of suspensions,” said Cary High School student Qasima Wideman.
About a half dozen with the student advocate group NC HEAT used the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting to blast what they call the system’s school-to-prison pipeline.
“You’re just constantly, constantly trying to be pushed out of school,” said Knightdale High School student Tavon Bridges. “Whether it be in jail, or you just sitting at home not doing any work.”
They claim zero-tolerance policies involving minor incidents lead to arrests, juvenile detention referrals and jail. That’s the case with their friend Selina Garcia.
NC HEAT produced no actual data or evidence that minor incidents were leading to arrests or jail. The subtext of their complaints points back to Zero Tolerance policies as being racist.
Keep in mind that groups like NC HEAT are not populated with your typical students. For example, Qasima Wideman is involved with at least half a dozen Leftist, LGBT, social justice and “education activism” organizations. By using narrative vehicles like the school-to-prison pipeline, young activists like Wideman are actually acting as recruiters. That’s important to note, since the population being drawn from is made up of impressionable K-12 children.
These developments mirror the leftist Cloward-Piven strategy of overwhelming a system to cause crisis, collapse and therefore, change and replacement of said system. Groups right here in North Carolina are working in such a manner to overwhelm the system.
These are groups such as the NC Student Power Union, remnants of Occupy Chapel Hill, the Southern Vision Alliance, plus activists trying to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour with the support of Moral Monday groups. Then add in school-to-prison pipeline groups like NC HEAT and Youth Organizing Institute. These groups, who have acted separately in the past, are now coalescing to feed a larger movement: Black Lives Matter. That’s the real agenda of the prison-to-pipeline activists.