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Zero Tolerance and an American Radica

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Zero Tolerance and an American Radical“Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in our Schools”Edited by William Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and Rick AyersNew York Press, 2001, New York.“Zero tolerance means zero tolerance of threatening, weapons and bullying. We don’tgive them an inch. We don’t give them chances.” Elementary School AdministratorIn the mid-nineties, a Chicago high school principal announced a new policy, oneof zero tolerance. No longer would there be excuses for student misconduct. No longerwould violations of major school rules, especially bans on drugs and guns, be tolerable.To many at the time, the new policy seemed to be redundant. There had never been anyconfusion that students were forbidden from bringing such objects to school. WilliamAyers and Bernardine Dohrn considered this policy unnecessary and when theyquestioned the principal about it, she responded that zero tolerance was “a contemporaryway of expressing what we already believed and practiced” (Ayers xi).However, since 1993, such policies have been emerging in schools across thenation. They grew out of an increasing fear of gang violence and juvenile delinquencythat appeared to have skyrocketed coming out of the 1980’s. In 1994, the federalgovernment mandated the program at a national level, and President Clinton signed theGun-Free Schools Act into law (Skiba 373). The law requires a one-year expulsion forthe possession of a firearm and referral of the violating students to a criminal justicecenter. In order to continue receiving federal funding, schools across the country rushedto comply with the policy.While it seemed like a positive measure at first, accounts soon began to arise ofabuse of the policies and possible racial discrimination. There were no provisions tostandardize enforcement, and thus some students slipped through the system while otherswere severely punished for minor and trivial offenses (Curwin 120). Many of the mostridiculous stories have been widely publicized, including one about the expulsion of asecond-grader for bringing his grandfather’s watch to show and tell (it happened to have a1” pocketknife attached) (Skiba 375). Public outrage at zero tolerance has growndisproportionately as evidence of the policies’ discrimination and unequal enforcementhas spread across the country. Instead of a tool to improve the environments of publicschools, zero tolerance had become a method to get rid of underachieving and otherwiseunwanted students (Curwin 120). If expelled, these students are left to the mercy of thestreets and often get into more trouble there than if they were kept in school. As of now,few districts provide alternative education for expelled students, and thus zero toleranceexpulsions are equal to educational death sentences (Dunbar 85). Unfortunately, thedisproportionate majority of those expelled or suspended are minority students, thusmaking the policies even more troublesome (Dunbar 84). In an age when school reforms are increasingly authoritarian and impersonal, it isimperative that the public gain an understanding of public school politics beyondgovernment rhetoric. Many parents are altogether unaware of the policies in theirchildren’s schools, and many of those who have experienced the wrong end of zerotolerance are completely unable to fight it (Dunbar 94). Zero tolerance policies arecreating prisons out of America’s schools and criminals out of America’s schoolchildren(Skiba 382). There is far too little literature available to the average citizen onprogressive school reform. Instead, most educational texts are written only to be read byeducators themselves or the intellectual elite. “Zero Tolerance” is not one of those texts.Ayers and Dohrn structure their compilation in the hopes that “students and teachers,school-board members and community activists, juvenile courts attorneys and legislatorsexamine these stories from the front lines” (Ayers xvi). If public schools are ever goingto improve, it will not be because they criminalize a large proportion of their studentbody. Instead it will be because administrators, teachers, parents and communitymembers seek to understand students and keep them in the education system, not kickthem out. This book is meant to serve a catalyst in this process. As founding members of the Weather Underground, William Ayers andBernardine Dohrn were on the forefront of American radicalism. Living as fugitives,stealing explosives, and hiding from the law, the two were involved in the definingmoments of their generation: the days of rage, SDS, the Black Panthers and ultimately thedeath of one of their best friends. Now, Dohrn and Ayers are married. TheirWeathermen days are behind them now. Ayers is a Distinguished Professor of Educationand a Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As an educator,he has taught courses on interpretive research, urban school change, teaching for justiceand democracy, youth and the modern predicament, and the cultural contexts of teaching.As an author, he has compiled an extensive list of texts stressing the importance ofprogressive education reform. Dohrn, Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Directorand founder of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University, is achild advocate as well as a teacher, lecturer and writer about children’s justice and humanrights. She is the author of a number of books on children’s rights and education reform.Rick Ayers, is a teacher at Berkeley high school and the author of several books aimed athigh school students. Included in the book are essays from the editors and such notable activists asReverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. and Pedro Noguera. In compiling this series of essays, theeditors’ hope is for “this volume [to] serve as a handbook for citizens” (Ayers xvi). Theyheroically proclaim in their introduction: “Now is the time for parents, teachers, citizens,and youth themselves to come together sensibly to resist zero tolerance,” (Ayers xiv).Through this text they desire to awaken others to the perils of zero tolerance policies,provide background information and ultimately, produce means through which citizenscan fight zero tolerance policies. Their methodology about this goal is through a series ofessays by legal experts, educators and students that examine and deconstruct the rationaleand


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