"My finger gun got me suspended": The Zero Tolerance Generation, Pt II
Previously: Part One
In 1999, Antonious Brown attended Therrell High in Southwest Atlanta, an area whose neighborhoods have long struggled with poverty and crime.
He’d had a rough time. He had to wear a hearing aid and was overweight to boot, so was routinely bullied, and he wasn’t strong enough to fight back. Creative writing was his main escape. Brown had wanted to be a writer since middle school. He particularly liked crafting horror stories, “like Stephen King,” in a journal he kept. Sometimes he’d share them with those he knew. “I wanted to write a book, for my own purposes,” Brown says.
“Occasionally, I’d let people read it.” But in March of that year, the school authorities got wind of one of his stories about an insane student who hunts down, kills, and cannibalizes classmates and teachers. Dark stuff, but hardly out-of-bounds for a horror story from a teenager.
Brown was an average student, with no record of discipline problems or any criminal run-ins with the law, but “the principal took it as a threat.”
According to Atlanta Journal- Constitution reports from the time, he was initially suspended for 20 days, but allowed back in school on the recommendation of a counselor.
His mother, Latonja Richardson, knew about his horror writing and had no issue with it. It looked like he was on his way back to school, with the incident soon to be just a bad memory. After all, that April he was only two months away from graduating.
He came back April 20. “My first day back at school, Columbine happened,” Brown says. “Parents were calling up the school, asking if the guy who wrote that story was there. They got me out of class and sent me home. Then the police came.”
They charged him with terroristic threats, and put him in jail for three days. A judge barred him from even being in the Atlanta area until after Therrell High’s current class graduated. Instead of walking with his fellow students that summer, he stayed with relatives in South Georgia. He lost his part-time job.
The police went even further, Brown remembers, searching his mother’s house several times, and monitoring both that home and his grandmother’s. “It was a terrible mess,” Richardson recalls.
That May, the Atlanta Public Schools discipline tribunal heard his case, and mandated that if he returned at all, it would have to be at a different high school.
“With people following through on these idle threats, you have to take them seriously, because you don’t know who is serious and who is not,” Dixon McLeod, head of the tribunal, told reporters at the time, summing up the paranoid zeitgeist. While the story didn’t mention the high school by name, McLeod found “it was too much Therrell High School. It was too much of him. We just had to react.” It was the first case of its kind in Atlanta schools to lead to criminal charges. ACLU attorney Gerry Weber took Brown’s case and, in his remarks to the press, seemed baffled about how visceral the zero-tolerance backlash had become.
“This is a scary time right now,” he acknowledged. “Any time there is a crisis, there is overreaction. We need to do our best to check ourselves.” That August, two days after his 18th birthday, a superior court judge ignored the ACLU’s assertions that Brown’s free speech rights were being infringed. While the horror story might not be threatening enough to bring criminal charges, a dubious report from the school that Brown had sworn he was “going to get the Class of 1999,” was. His record, previously pristine, was ignored. The result was barely mentioned by local media, whose attention was already waning.
“They didn’t really have a case against me, they took me to another psych evaluation. The woman who did the evaluation said I was highly intelligent and wasn’t capable of doing any of that.” The charges were quietly dropped, but the consequences weren’t over. While he had the credits, he was effectively kicked out of the public education system and “I had to get my GED instead.”
“It was hurtful, they took my mother and grandmother through a lot of stress,” he says. “They harassed them. They even took walking with my class away from me, just because I wrote something in a book.”
I asked Brown if the school had ever reacted with similar swiftness or severity to a case of actual violence: his own bullying.
* * * *
I first heard about the Columbine massacre when my friend drove me to school the next day. In the fog of violent tragedy, every rumor had equal weight. I heard there were three shooters, two died and another had been “dragged out by the SWAT team.” No, then there were two. There were a few people dead—no, it was more like 30 or 40. The devout Christian students had died praying for the souls of their Satanist attackers. There were explosions, or not… The whole mess hung over the day. It was impossible to teach, or learn. Everyone in the school felt some line had been crossed, but none could decide what the hell to do about it. We wanted to do something.
In the wake of a tragedy, people revert to a lizard-brain level of thinking, a need to strike back with some sudden response. Feeling that usual actions are unequal to unusual situations, we tend to reject half measures or actions that might pay off further down the road. And politicians and superintendents, are reluctant to go before freaked-out constituents with calm explanations of the complex social causes of violence or homilies about its unpredictable nature. That kind of level-headedness could end their careers.
Humans instinctively crave a response equivalent to the tragedy itself—something as virile, stark and uncompromising as an ’80s action hero’s scowl. Zero tolerance fit that requirement.
Zero tolerance is the proverbial big stick without a carrot. It requires that any student who gets in any sort of trouble, or even seems likely to cause trouble in the future, needs to be subjected to swift, severe consequences inside and outside school. Zero tolerance is the mentality that calls for more cops in schools and more expulsions, the “throw ’em out and ask questions later” approach.
Legacies are strange things. Columbine is now a memory. Zero tolerance is still here.
* * * *
“My finger gun got me suspended.”
Shortly after Columbine, over in Lacey, Washington, a suburb of Olympia, MeShelle Locke was joking with a classmate. She remembers that it was an early release day, so there was an unusual schedule, and one of her classmates was debating with a teacher about what time they were getting out.
The student was right.
“I put my fingers into the shape of a gun, cocked it and said ‘Right on,’ and he said ‘Is that a threat?’ It reminded me of a line from a movie, so I said, ‘No, it’s a promise.’ That was it. That was the extent of the incident that got me suspended.”
The teacher let the students out, and Locke and her classmate talked to some other students. At the next class, three girls asked her about it. She was baffled, but “I was like, ‘So, you want a finger gun too?’ They looked at me like I was crazy and I went on, laughed it off. It was nothing.”
The girls had a sleepover that weekend, and one of their parents heard about the apparently terrifying nature of Locke’s fingers. The parent called the school.
“I was called down to the principal’s office, and there was an officer there,” she remembers. “He read my Miranda rights.”
Fortunately, in contrast to Brown’s case, the police officer didn’t think there was anything worth charging Locke, a freshman at the time, with. “It was the school’s discretion of what to do, and to show he was doing something, he gave me a three-day emergency suspension. “I think they called it possibly threatening behavior.”
After Columbine, she said, “There was a lot more observation of our behavior, kind of an overreaction to the little things; hoping they could stop something from happening by catching it [in] a very early stage.”
She was a straight-A student before and after, and school administrators seemed to forget the whole incident. Locke’s family backed her up. “My parents thought this was crazy. They took me out to eat, they took me out shopping, they took me to the movies. We made a big vacation out of it.”
Local newspapers picked it up as an example of an absurd overreaction. The American Rifle Association even gave her a free membership.
* * * *
Brown and Locke weren’t the only ones to experience this kind of overkill. Another student was suspended for bringing a work knife for a Future Farmers of America event. In Virginia, Kent McNew was suspended for the terrible crime of having blue hair, until a judge intervened.
Finally, after rampantly cranking up as much paranoia as they could in the aftermath of Columbine, major media began to notice something was up.
“The Columbine Effect” was what TIME magazine dubbed it on November 28. After reciting a litany of zero-tolerance cases, including those of Brown (though it misspells his name) and Locke, it declares:
“Welcome to the American school after Columbine. It can be a place brimming with suspicion, where in the past few months school officials have seen a nail file as a knife and blue hair as an omen of antisocial, possibly even violent behavior. (Judges sent both those boys back to class.) It’s an environment in which a school bans even images of weapons…”
The pattern is a strangely familiar one for stories of zero tolerance (especially when they involve middle-class suburban kids), an “isn’t this ridiculous?” tone that never moves to suggesting changes in the laws and school policies that make it possible. In the TIME article there was plenty of sympathy with what, in a better time, any sane person would have immediately identified as barking paranoia:
“It’s understandable that school officials are unsettled these days. Polls show that most Americans favor "zero tolerance" policies for campus violence, and many parents demand tough-minded, short-term solutions even as they wait for the results of more complex approaches like better mentoring and earlier intervention for troubled children. It may seem silly to go after a kid whose only crime is manicuring during school hours. But how do you know whom to treat sympathetically at a time when 11-year-olds commit murder? (Now 13, Nathaniel Abraham was convicted last month in Michigan of shooting a stranger in the head.) And how do you decide which kids are just morose and creative—and which ones are plotting to kill?”
That last sentence, in all its movie of- the-week posturing, is the perfect example of the mentality dominant then. While it appeared in a relatively critical article, even the absolute absurdity of the “Columbine effect” and the resulting verdicts weren’t enough to overcome fear of super-predator 11-year-olds stalking around every school planning ultraviolence.
Is it any wonder writing a horror story became a crime?
* * * *
Zero tolerance in Brown’s case landed him in jail, hurt his educational career and put his family through the wringer. After I started researching this piece, I learned of far worse: criminal charges, or suspensions for being a victim of violence. Such cases are usually chalked up to the arbitrary authority of schools in general and in particular to the national hysteria that encapsulates the Columbine era. Bizarrely, the “Columbine effect” was a widespread experience, a millennial version of the moon landing or the declaration of war, a memorable flash in time that defined a generation. And that has clouded the fact that zero tolerance goes back much further than Columbine.
Next: Part Two