No Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

Notes from Drug Policy Alliance's Back-to-School Teleconference on Drug Education and Zero Tolerance Policies

When Doug and Catherine Snodgrass shared the story of their autistic son’s arrest for drug sale charges this past February, they put a face to the very real problems perpetuated by zero tolerance policies in schools.

On September 12th, the parents joined four experts in a teleconference on improving drug education hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) to once again share their story and promote DPA’s reform work. On the heels of the new school year, DPA aimed to raise awareness about the failure of zero tolerance policies and offer students, parents, and teachers tools for bringing reality-based drug education to their schools. Lynne Lyman, California state director of DPA, summed up the changing national attitude about zero tolerance during the conference: “Young people who are engaged in risky behavior, whether drug selling, illicit drug taking, need love, support, information, education, and guidance—not expulsions, arrests, and jail cells.”

Doug and Catherine Snodgrass recounted their initial joy when their son, who is also diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Tourette’s syndrome, befriended classmate Daniel Briggs at Chaparral High School in Temecula, CA. They didn’t find out Daniel was an undercover deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department until one day in early December when their son didn’t come home from school.

Investigators arrested the teen during class and questioned him for selling small amounts of marijuana twice to the undercover deputy. A juvenile court judge eventually dismissed the case. Doug and Catherine successfully thwarted efforts by the school district to expel their son.

The ordeal suffered by the Snodgrass family is just one snapshot of well-documented deficiencies found in broad zero tolerance policies. As a single-track response to a multi-faceted cultural trend, these disciplinary regulations make few positive contributions to school safety and often harm special needs and minority students.

Beyond Zero Tolerance Zero tolerance policies exaggerate drug effects, use scare tactics to deter youth from experimenting, and dole out suspensions and expulsions without regard to the severity of an infringement. DPA recently released an updated edition of Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-Based Approach to Drug Education and School Discipline as a resource, which SSDP also distributes, for parents looking to effectively communicate with youth and advocate for much-needed change in school policies. “Expelling or suspending students caught with drugs denies them the structure and supervision that school provides, again, one of the most effect known deterrents for youth drug use,” says Lyman. “These policies are the feeders of the school to prison pipeline.”

In 2008, the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force published a report which found that zero tolerance does not result in disciplinary consistency as supporters presumed, that higher rates of suspension actually correlated with an increase in misbehavior, and a disproportionate amount of minority and special needs students are frequently punished. Some states have already taken action to amend these policies in response to lobbying and new data. Ted Wachtel, president and founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), is one leading expert analyzing benefits of progressive, proactive policies. The IIRP, a graduate school in Bethlehem, PA, enacts two-year programs in schools across the nation to improve overall student behavior through community building.

“When you create a sense of belonging, when you create a sense of connectedness in a school, there’s some rather interesting studies that show you have a decline in all sorts of anti-social or self-destructive behavior in schools—from teen pregnancy to drug use and abuse to violence to just inappropriate behaviors,” says Wachtel.

Such restorative practices can be seen in model strategies created by Chuck Ries, founder of UpFront Programs in Oakland, CA. As a reality-based approach to drug education, UpFront provides teachers with training on how to effectively communicate with students and implements a seven-level process which involves program facilitators entering classrooms, hosting drop-in lunch sessions and support groups, and building a strong school community. Most of all, UpFront provides students with truthful information and open dialogue—the response from students has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They were looking for something to do,” says Ries. “They were desperately trying to find something to do, trying to engage with their high school, so we gave them that.”

UpFront Programs received positive feedback from independent evaluators hired by the Oakland Unified School District and were found to be largely cost effective. Ries and his program facilitators have found their ways into various other schools across the nation to hold training sessions with teachers, but he says that students have the power to be proactive within their own schools.

“I think that any group of students that goes to a teacher or the administration with a request for any kind of drug education would be heard,” he says.

Similar to how SSDP enables college students to advocate for change at their institutions, high school students, as well as their parents and teachers, have the ability to approach schools with recommendations for reality-based drug education proven to be effective time and again. DPA’s Beyond Zero Tolerance is an accessible source of information that echoes the facts shared by Wachtel and Ries. Parents looking to be proactive can also turn to another DPA publication, Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs. Resources like these can be used to approach parent-teacher associations to facilitate conversation and change.

Advocacy that gets students involved in their drug education early often leads to future involvement in promoting responsible practices and effective policy. “Many of the students we worked with then went on to be facilitators of our program,” says Ries about his own experience. “The students carry the message, they always carry the message in a better way than adults can.”