Report Details the Folly of 'Zero Tolerance'

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - Destructive 'zero tolerance' policies in the nation's schools are leading students off the academic track, sometimes straight to the jailhouse, critics say.

In what's billed as a "first-of-its-kind" report, a public policy group called the Advancement Project noted, "In school district after school district, an inflexible and unthinking zero tolerance approach to an exaggerated juvenile-crime problem is derailing the educational process."

Judith Browne, Advancement Project senior attorney, said in a press release, "The educational system is starting to look more like the criminal justice system. Acts once handled by a principal or a parent are now being handled by prosecutors and the police."

The report, which looked at data from school systems across the country, found that the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse phenomenon has damaged a generation of children -- particularly minority children - by criminalizing trivial offenses and turning schools into prison-like "secure environments."

The report documented what it called "dramatic spikes" in student arrests in some school districts, often for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct and simple assaults.

Some examples cited by the report include that of a Palm Beach County student arrested on charges of "throwing a deadly missile" for having an egg in his pocket on Halloween; elementary school students in Indianola, Miss., arrested and taken to the jail for talking during an assembly; and two elementary school boys in New Jersey, charged with terrorism for playing cops and robbers with paper guns.

"Students who engage in truly criminal behavior such as murder, serious violence, or the sale or possession of illicit drugs, should be subjected to criminal charges -- as they were even before zero tolerance became the watchword," said Browne.

"However, students should not be deprived of an education and a future...for minor acts."

The report concludes that laws must be changed to reduce the number of petty cases that schools refer to the juvenile justice system.

Browne concluded, "As policymakers attempt to "Leave No Child Behind," reducing the criminalization of students by their schools should be a top priority. This runaway train must be stopped."

The Advancement Project -- with offices in Washington and Los Angeles -- describes itself as a "policy and legal action organization that creates strategies for achieving universal opportunity and a racially just democracy."

According to its website, "We support organized communities in their struggles for racial and social justice by providing legal, policy, and communications expertise."