For over a decade, my job was to craft alternatives to incarceration for juvenile offenders. In the early 1990s, soon after I began this work, the juvenile crime rate soared and, along with it, a “tough on crime” increase in punishment for both the most severe and the most minor offenses. I remember visiting two clients who were cellmates: one was there for exchanging gunfire with a rival gang, and the other for a snowball fight on the school playground. Juvenile courts had always taken seriously children who wielded guns, and appropriately so. My caseload now included children who wielded snowballs, snatched Halloween candy, or got into shoving matches.
This same wide net of harsh punishment was cast in school discipline leading up to and in the wake of rare but widely reported school shootings—especially the horrifying Columbine High School incident. As with “tough on crime” laws, the new “zero tolerance” policies didn’t change how schools treated students who assaulted teachers or brought guns to school: they continued to get expelled and referred to law enforcement just as they always had. However, there was a sharp increase in the number of students caught in the highly discretionary zero tolerance zone, an unintended result of trying to prevent another Columbine. Unfortunately, these new policies have failed to show any corresponding increase in school safety.