Zero Tolerance Policies in Florida Schools: Shifting from Incapacitation to Rehabilitation

BY KARLA ALBITE — The Florida system of juvenile justice has achieved a reputation of being highly punitive thanks to its “Tough Love” policy.  This reputation has developed through the state’s zero tolerance approach to school discipline.  Under a zero tolerance regime, any infraction, regardless of the severity, is penalized, and there need be no inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the incident.  In theory, this policy should “send a message” that deters others from committing similar serious infractions.  However, in Florida, this policy has led school administrators to recommend expulsion and even arrest for incidents such as bringing nail clippers to school or throwing spitballs.  It is this tendency towards severity that makes zero tolerance policies detrimental to the success of schools and its students in that these policies create a culture of incapacitation where mere mistakes—far less egregious than serious scuffles—can mark a student just as conviction marks an adult.

The extreme circumstances of nail clippers and spitballs that make it into the media spotlight are not the exception, but appear to be the rule.  According to a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice seven-year study that ended in 2011, over two-thirds of school-related delinquency referrals, which are analogous to arrests in the adult criminal justice system, were for misdemeanors.  Statistics have begun to improve thanks to a “relaxed” zero tolerance policy that encourages, but does not require, schools to reconsider before applying the most severe penalties to petty acts of misconduct.  One Florida district took on this charge: in November 2013, Broward County announced it had rewritten its discipline plan, in collaboration with police and members of the legal community. Broward County has aimed to lower the number of school-related juvenile arrests in their district because these permanent stains on a student’s record “decrease a student’s chance of graduation, entering higher education, joining the military, and getting a job.”

The change by legislators, but not yet a majority of schools, towards a less severe zero tolerance policy in Florida and nationwide resulted after data trends showed an increase in first-time incidents and recidivism without any overall improvement in discipline; this occurred despite a policy intended to do the opposite.  This focus on data, though, ignores the primary purpose of having and encouraging discipline in schools—to educate our children.  Education should continue even after a student chews a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun, an event that recently got a Maryland boy suspended.  However, if schools continue utilizing extreme policies, such as expulsion and arrests, proclaiming the benefits of general deterrence and incapacitation, rather than working on attempting to truly rehabilitate students, the role of schools in helping to shape future generations becomes incredibly limited.  Zero tolerance policies eliminate the opportunity for schools to teach students about being good citizens, performing good deeds, and simply bettering themselves.  Instead, it takes good students out of the classroom and teaches them that, once they mess up, there is no coming back.

The transition from childhood to adulthood involves many things, including greater awareness of what is right and what is wrong, and that what is wrong is shortly followed by consequences.  To get to this stage of development, there is trial and error, and the opportunity to bounce back from error is what makes childhood so unique.  To take the opportunity of learning from one’s mistakes away from children is a crime to society.  That is the true effect of zero tolerance policies and is the reason why such policies should be eliminated.

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