Zero Tolerance for Teens

High school students interviewed across the country are saying the same thing: "They're making schools like prisons." And it's not hard to see their point. Most U.S. high school students will have to walk by numerous hidden security cameras, outdoors and indoors, and go through an institutional-size metal detector manned by guards just to get into school each morning. Once there, students are subject to random searches of their bodies and belongings. Lockers can be searched without warning with or without the student present, and in many places police will use drug-sniffing dogs during raids where they search lockers and even students' parked cars.

“It violates us,” said Charita Ford, 16, editor –in-chief of Gumbo Magazine, a youth-run publication, in Milwaukee. “Some days you’ll come to school and they’ll just be like, ‘Take your purse off, your jacket, your backpack,’ and search everything.”

“I can see why they needed the security, but personally I hated it,” said Crystal Medina, 20, of her days at Lane Tech High School in Chicago. “I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but they treat you like you are. And they don’t search everybody, so it’s like profiling who they pick to search.”

Sometimes the searches are done by school staff or hired guards, other times by local police. Usually the contraband found hardly justifies the expenditure of resources.
“They usually only found cell phones and pagers, never guns, maybe a few drugs here and there,” said Medina.

A January 31 editorial in the Buccaneer Bulletin high school paper at Oswego High School in Oswego, New York described one such search at nearby Altmar-Parish-Williamstown High School:

"On November 22, students at the APW High School were surprised when several police squads and their drug-sniffing canine units entered the building for a thorough search of students' lockers," says the story. "It was an investigation that took place upon the principal's request, and resulted in only one major finding, a small amount of marijuana and a marijuana pipe in a student's pocket."

But since the institution of strict zero tolerance policies at schools around the country over the past decade, students are regularly suspended or even expelled for offenses that range from the relatively minor like minimal marijuana possession to the truly ridiculous -- like possession of a dull table knife to cut a grapefruit at lunch, or taking Tylenol for a headache.

Among many "Zero Tolerance Nightmares" posted on a website of the same name, students described being suspended or expelled for things such as asking too many questions about Sept. 11 or possessing a pocket knife used to fix a car mirror. In many states, schools are also extending zero tolerance policies to off-campus behavior, including minor drug possession or under-age drinking.

In many ways zero tolerance policies and extensive security and search measures create a vicious circle which exacerbates disruptive and destructive behavior by students. Suspensions and expulsions clearly have a negative effect on individual student's lives, disrupting or even effectively terminating their education with little positive benefit.
And students describe feeling humiliated and violated by locker, car and body searches, emotions that can only decrease their enthusiasm for school and their respect for school authorities. In a lawsuit filed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in June 2001, students at Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles described being frisked and spread-eagled and having their personal belongings examined in front of whole classes. The ACLU noted that the school was breaking the law by conducting the searches without a metal detector; touch-searches are only supposed to be done sparingly after a metal detector has gone off.

"The searches are embarrassing," Toi Benford, a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. "They're treating us like we're criminals. It's turning school into a prison."

Like high schools across the country, Locke also has a high number of security cameras all over campus, though students and staff say the cameras do little to change conditions.
"There are 27 cameras on the second floor alone and they are going to put up more cameras to supposedly make it a safer place, when really you feel more like a criminal," former student Rosa Cuevas told a Locke student journalist last year.

Meanwhile,when students try to dissent and speak out about the effects of these policies and other controversial topics, they often find themselves censored by school officials. A 1988 Supreme Court decision called Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier gave principals the right to censor the content of school newspapers. While some states have actually passed laws increasing or protecting high school journalists' freedom of expression, cases of censorship in high school papers are still rampant. The Student Press Law Center (SPLC), which documents cases of censorship and provides legal advice to students, logs various examples of censorship. In April, it notes, the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Utica High School student journalist who was censored last spring for reporting on claims that school bus diesel fumes were causing health complications among nearby residents.

Students are also restrained in the realm of artistic and personal expression. They have been ordered to remove T-shirts or buttons with anti-war or other political messages, and visual art is sometimes censored in the same way as school papers.

In the Chicago suburb of Wheeling, for example, in May high school artist Mary Loeffler found her self-portrait which had been hanging on a wall censored, because of an exposed breast. She saw the breast as part of a statement on women's self image and vulnerability, but the principal saw it as too inappropriate and provocative for a high school. The incident kicked off a road-side protest and vibrant discussion about censorship at Wheeling High School. To avoid the removal of her painting, Loeffler placed a fluorescent green piece of paper over the offending breast and wore a similar one pinned to her own chest. Other male and female students pinned green paper or signs saying "censored" over their own chests or groins in solidarity.

Some students also see dress codes as a form of suppression of their freedom of expression. While many students are in favor of school uniforms or dress codes to cut down on gang activity or competition to be the best dressed, dress codes can also take on political and cultural ramifications.

“At my school you can’t wear African head wraps,” said Ford. “But that’s part of our culture and for some people it’s part of their religion. They [administrators] don’t understand, they just lump it all into this rule that you can’t wear anything that ‘isn’t supposed to be on your head’ on your head.”

Rhea Mokund, project director of Listen Up!, a network of about 60 youth media and arts outlets nationwide, noted that as far as visual art goes, she hasn’t seen too much censorship of teens’ work. “Our students produce all kinds of things, and at first we thought that was something we’d have a problem with,” she said. “But it hasn’t been. Maybe because we tend to work with alternative schools and arts-oriented magnet schools it’s a little different.”

Mokund said she is disturbed by the suppression of gay-straight alliance clubs in schools around the country – in many cases schools are banning or cutting funding for all clubs to prevent these clubs from forming. “It’s groups like these that create more tolerance in our society,” she said. “We should be encouraging them, not suppressing them.”

Unfortunately fighting violations of civil liberties and censorship in high schools is not always a cut and dry issue. Given the real prevalence of violence and the need to have some limits on potential hate speech or bullying, there is a place for some monitoring and regulation of student behavior.

“I think we need dress codes,” said Medina, who is now a columnist and editorial assistant for The Residents’ Journal newspaper in Chicago. “If you don’t have them, students will get really out of control in the kinds of slogans they’ll wear on their T-shirts.”

There can sometimes be a fine line between protecting some students’ rights to free expression while also protecting other students from experiencing a threatening or hostile environment.

For example speech or expression having to do with religion can enter gray areas. Ford wrote a story for Gumbo about a case in which Christian students were suspended for handing out candy canes with religious messages attached to them at Christmas time. While the principal thought he was enforcing the separation of church and state, she saw the issue as a violation of the students’ right to free expression.

The problems that cause the need or perceived need for beefed up security are also exacerbated by current economic and political trends in the education world. Severe under-funding of public schools around the country has severely worsened the overcrowding crisis. With up to 3,000 students in a school and class sizes of up to 30 or more, it can be hard or almost impossible for teachers and administrators to prevent fighting and violence, not to mention for them to keep the students' interest in the actual course material.

In most major cities the vast majority of public school attendees are minorities from low-income neighborhoods, since most white students and higher income students will opt to go to better quality private schools. So the potential for gang violence is heightened.
Schools across the country started increasing up their security in 1994, after the passage of federal legislation mandating the use of metal detectors and other measures.

The legislation was passed largely in response to highly publicized school shootings, like the murder of Michael Ensley at Reseda High School in southern California. Violent incidents did decrease by roughly half in the year following the federal legislation. Though the Supreme Court later overturned the mandatory use of metal detectors, most urban schools still have them in place.

School security procedures were heavily increased around the country after the Columbine shooting, even though gun violence had been a serious problem in urban schools long preceding that incident. School security has also likely been stepped up in the “war on terrorism” all-around climate of fear and security. The national push for standardized testing as the sole indicator of teacher and school quality also feeds into the climate of totalitarian control in high schools, reinforcing the notion that heightened conformity is the only road to success.

“Standardized testing is the big issue,” said Paulina Mauras, teen media program director at the Teen Media Center in Cambridge, Mass. “Students complain a lot about locker searches and those things, but those are nothing compared to the MCAS (Massachusettes Comprehensive Assessment System test). The MCAS is really terrible. The students have to take it to graduate, but its obviously tailored to a certain group. It’s not made for non-white students and poor students, which are the groups I work with. They feel like they’re being labeled and targeted for failure.”

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act can be seen as a part of this trend, since it institutes stricter accreditation and other performance standards for schools but doesn't provide them resources to make improvements.

Despite all these forces at work making high school a more frightening and tightly controlled place to be, many students are fighting back, whether through pinning green paper on their chests like Loeffler or holding public speakouts about school policy or producing independent student publications.

For example Ford and other students in Milwaukee are petitioning the administration to allow them to wear headwraps next year.

“They’re going to have to make a change in their policy,” she said. “It’s our right to express who we are.”

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at


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