The Columbine reaction: The Zero Tolerance Generation, Pt III
Previously: Part Two
After April 20, 1999, “zero tolerance” was suddenly on everyone’s lips.
So it makes an intuitive sense to suppose that the mindset emerged directly as a reaction to Columbine and to the other school shootings that had happened in the years before.
But the reality is that it was not new. Until 1999 it had been applied mainly in urban schools with poor, minority student populations. Public mention of the policy had been restricted to occasional discussions about the overlap of education and law enforcement, with the occasional fretting about “is the trade-off worth it?” Columbine was simply the break in the levee, the disaster that sent problems that had long been safely confined to disadvantaged urban schools rolling over the walls and into affluent, white suburbia.
Zero tolerance grew out of the biggest reactionary backlash of the 20th century, without ever being consciously associated with Ronald Reagan or any other traditionalist icon. Its politics are a tangled vine, connecting a surprising number of groups on all sides of the political spectrum.
Violence in schools was an incredibly real problem in the ’80s, escalating with the war on drugs and the crack epidemic. At the same time, social services at every level started to see major cuts, worsening the problem.
What’s more, the byzantine mess of a decentralized U.S. school system, meant that districts that were poor or unsupported at state level quickly fell behind, with teachers taking the brunt. They weren’t even able to know most of the kids in their class, and their salaries sure weren’t on the rise. Poverty and isolation breed ugly things, and violence from students was a real concern. “Crack down on everything” was a natural response.
So zero tolerance emerged on the policy level, pushed most ardently by law-and-order types, teachers’ unions, and parents’ groups. Kicking out sociopaths and would-be violent criminals was an understandable, if draconian, response in school districts hit hard by neglect and poverty, where safety and basic order were increasingly shaky.
This also made zero tolerance political perfection for “Third Way” Bill Clinton types eager to appear tough on crime but also compassionate, with hopefully a few sops to the leftists still remaining in their coalition. Surely no one wanted violence in schools?
A bevy of laws in the mid-’90s made mandatory expulsions for students carrying weapons and drugs a condition for whether or not cash-strapped school systems received federal dollars. While the laws made provisions for appeal or for arranging alternate education for problem students, in practice such services were often either inadequate or nonexistent. It usually just meant kicking students out, or even slapping criminal charges on for good measure.
Some states and localities went even further. In California, “willful defiance” became a reason for suspension, or even expulsion. In Texas, an alliance worked to pass the Texas Safe Schools Act, which gave teachers the authority to remove students they deemed repeatedly “disruptive” (a category that often ended up being interpreted arbitrarily).
Interestingly, except for moments of crisis like the post-Columbine freakout, outright defenses of zero tolerance are rare, other than vague “something must be done” rhetoric. However, the American Federation of Teachers did provide a justification, in a 1997 statement summing up the history of their involvement, focusing on Texas. “Undoubtedly, the disorder that teachers reported was the work of a few students, but TFT [the local AFT affiliate] knew that these kids were harming the learning of all the rest,” the statement read. “Without tough codes of conduct that were consistently enforced, they would continue doing so.”
Major metropolitan school systems around the country followed California and Texas, using similarly vague categories. While these policies were in response to real problems, like the drug war they ran parallel with, they tended to escalate out of control very quickly.
However, enforcing zero tolerance was still legally problematic. Since the 1960s, a series of court rulings had enshrined the principle that students had some version of constitutional rights, even if a watered-down one. In the famous 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruling, the Supreme Court found that students didn’t “shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse door.”
While the ruling specifically concerned students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, how was one to draw the line between free speech that an administrator didn’t like and the “willful defiance” it was now so necessary to crush completely? By the mid-’90s the tide was turning against all that civil liberties stuff from the ’60s. Instead of citizens-intraining, exercising their nascent rights against stuffed shirts, students were now popularly shoved into Manichaen categories of super-predator (“the few students” the AFT mentioned) or vulnerable innocent.
In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled in Vernonia School District v. Acton that students’ protections against unreasonable search and seizure didn’t bar random drug testing of athletes. Even though that test included monitoring them while they took a piss, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, deemed it “negligible,” and tied the testing to the need to enact the kind of discipline zero tolerance called for:
“Between 1988 and 1989 the number of disciplinary referrals in Vernonia schools rose to more than twice the number reported in the early 1980’s, and several students were suspended. Students became increasingly rude during class; outbursts of profane language became common.”
Athletes, he continued, “were the leaders of the drug culture,” so the school had an interest in pursuing a zero-tolerance drug policy towards them. In a far cry from Tinker, Scalia concluded students “lack some of the most fundamental rights of self determination— including even the right of liberty in its narrow sense.”
* * * *
At this point, zero tolerance had mostly danced into the public eye only as a smaller part of larger debates about crime, education, or the drug epidemics of the ’80s and ’90s.
But as the ’90s wore on, several school shootings brought the topic closer to the mainstream. Before, school violence had been viewed as an urban problem, and sadly, that meant to many Americans something they associated primarily with minorities and the poor. In other words, unfortunate but “not our problem.”
But on October 1, 1997 Luke Woodham, 16, stabbed his mother to death at her home in Pearl, Mississippi. He went on to kill two students, including his ex-girlfriend. Exactly two months later, Michael Carnael, 14, shot and killed three students in West Paducah, Kentucky while they were in a prayer circle. Two weeks later, another 14-year-old shot and killed two students in Stamps, Arkansas. As 1998 came on, in Craighead County, also in Arkansas, two students emptied the school with a fire alarm, killing four students and a teacher. In April, Kip Kinkel killed his parents and then two other students in Springfield, Oregon.
While these shootings were soon eclipsed by the events in Littleton, they helped set the scene for a drastic increase in the use of zero tolerance nationwide.
The prayer circle, and Woodham’s apparent involvement with other outcasts in high school Satanism, received major play in the media, laying the groundwork that would help create an incredibly damaging mythology about Columbine and fuel zero tolerance crackdowns for years to come.
* * * *
On April 6, 1998, TIME ran a cover story on the Arkansas shootings. “Armed and Dangerous” it read: “An up-close look at the lives [of] two gun-happy kids and the murderous ambush of their Arkansas classmates.”
The edition was hot off the presses when Jason Alan Clark, then a junior at a high school in Yale, Michigan, got into trouble.
“I was a fairly standard rebellious teenager; I kept to myself and wrote snarky things,” he remembers. After his classmates mocked a new Spanish teacher, he wrote a satirical piece “about the school’s ineptitude.” He didn’t distribute it, didn’t even share it with friends. But one day, between periods, this particular writing fell out.
“It wasn’t even violent, it was just humorous.” “I couldn’t figure out where it had gone,” Clark says. “The next day I get called into the assistant principal’s office. They had tracked down my handwriting and were very concerned about my mental state. They were instituting a new policy.”
They suspended him for a week. His assistant principal was the former head of a Catholic school, already concerned about the proliferation of Marilyn Manson shirts and potential Satanism.
“He stands up and takes out the magazine, and points to the article on school shootings,” Clark says. “He says ‘We’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen here, and he’s the sort of problem we need to nip in the bud.’ It turned into a gigantic screaming match.”
He was sent to the school counselor, “not a psychiatrist, not a psychologist, but my god did she think she was.” The counselor, armed with the finest pop psychology, interpreted everything in his stories as a metaphor, asking if anyone beat him at home.
Like many of us in that situation, especially in more rural areas where zero tolerance was relatively new, Clark was lucky; he had supportive parents and actually ended up more popular than he was before. “It pretty much backfired on them. The students who got harassed started looking up legal language to harass them back.”
But, “others got it worse,” he emphasizes and the same administrator harassed other students until their grades suffered or they started missing class, giving him an easy excuse to expel them. “One student was harassed so much he couldn’t focus and he ended up in the alternate school,” Clark says.
“That student wasn’t an issue until the assistant principal decided to make him an issue. It was not quite the zero tolerance policy that exists in a lot of schools today, but my god it was an ineffective failure.”
While overall the school was reasonably good, he remembers, no one really curbed the assistant principal’s authority.
* * * *
I know how common this sort of overreaction by administrators was at the time was because my friends and I all have similar stories. Although we call them Columbine stories, many of them happened before that massacre. My own experience, like Clark’s, happened in 1998.
Thanks to dumb luck, I wasn’t expelled. In later years, after Columbine or, god forbid, 9/11, I doubt school authorities would have looked so kindly on the would-be leader of the Currituck County Islamic Jihad. I was bored in history class. We were on the Spartans and the Athenians, a story I knew by heart because I found lurid tales of violence and politics fascinating at that age (and ever since, to be honest). Since I’d finished writing my report in the computer lab early, I decided to mess around with the Wingdings font, discovering that it had symbols for various religions.
With that sort of impish glee only truly possible in one’s adolescent years, I quickly drew up a fake poster for the aforementioned Jihadist group, slurring school administrators as “decadent Western pig dogs,” getting in a few digs at school Christian organizations, and demanding that the cafeteria stop serving faux-pork.
I showed it to a few friends and, through twists and turns, a copy ended up in the locker of the most fundamentalist girl in school, a tight laced future Morehead scholar and right-wing lawyer.
Her father was insane, a true believer not just in his religion, but also in the existence of numerous hostile conspiracies out to get him and his family. He believed that the flier proved that rural Currituck County was host to a radical Islamist terrorist cell. So I was woken up in art class the next day (I had severe insomnia at the time) by the hand of the principal, one of the most humorless men I have ever met. I was promptly yanked into his office, along with my friend who’d put a copy of the flier in the girl’s locker. We were asked if we had any guns in our houses, if we were depressed. Had we seen a therapist? What was the Currituck Islamic Jihad? How many members were there?
“I don’t take very kindly to being called a decadent Western pig dog, Mr. Forbes,” the principal said. A pause. “You know, with these shootings, we have to be absolutely careful.”
The school cop, a sheriff’s deputy from the old Southern school who actually wore mirrored sun glasses, loomed over the whole interview. He informed me that a wise Supreme Court justice once said, “Your opinions end where my eyes and ears begin.” Doing myself no favors, I promptly corrected the John Marshall quote. They called my mom, a school teacher herself, in an attempt to embarrass me. She said the flier was pretty funny.
I lucked out with two days of in school suspension, where I had to write terrible essays about how sorry I was. I got grilled again after Columbine, especially about guns and my bad poetry, but that was that. I graduated with honors, a small scholarship, and a funny story.
Others were not so lucky.
Next: Part Four