Zero Tolerance, Part 2

Henry A. Giroux

rightfully argue that as the War on Poverty ran out of steam with the social
and economic crisis that emerged in the 1970s, it has been replaced with an
emphasis on domestic warfare, and that the policies of social investment, at
all levels of government, have given way to an emphasis on repression,
surveillance, and control.  Starting with Reagan’s war on drugs and the
privatization of the prison industry in the 1980s and escalating to the war on
immigrants in the early 1990s, and the rise of the prison-industrial complex
by the close of the decade, the criminalization of social policy has now
become a part of everyday culture and provides a common referent point that
extends from governing prisons and regulating urban culture to running

It comes as no
surprise when New York City mayor, Rudi Giuliani, “over the opposition of
most parents and the schools chancellor, formally assigns the oversight of
discipline in the public schools to the police department.” Once it was
clear that Giuliani would receive high marks in the press for lowering the
crime rate due to zero tolerance policies adopted by the city’s police
force, it seemed reasonable to him to use the same policies in the public
schools. What was also ignored by the public and popular press nationally was
that as the call for more police, prisons, and get tough laws reached fever
pitch among politicians and legislators, the investment in domestic
militarization began to exceed more than $100 billion a year.

militarization gained full legislative strength with the passage of the
Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Following the mandatory
sentencing legislation and get tough policies associated with the war on drugs
declared by the Reagan and Bush administrations, three strikes and you’re
out policy puts repeat offenders, including nonviolent offenders, in jail for
life, regardless of the seriousness of the crime. The general idea behind the
bill is “to increase the prison sentence for a second offense and require
life in custody without parole for a third offense.” It also provides 60 new
offenses punishable by death, while at the same time limiting the civil rights
and appeal process for those inmates sentenced to die. In addition, the
largest single allocation in the bill is for prison construction.

The explosion
in the prison population has also resulted in a big increase in the move
towards privatizing prisons. As Robin D. G. Kelley points out, by the close of
1997, at least 102 for profit private prisons existed in the United States,
“each receiving some form of federal subsidy with limited federal protection
of prisoners’ rights or prison conditions.” Prisoners, especially the
widely disproportionate pool of African-American inmates which has tripled
since 1980, provide big business not only “with a new source of consumers
but a reservoir of cheap labor.” As the “prison-industrial complex”
becomes a dominant force in the economy of states such as California,
competing with land developers, service industries, and unions, it does more
than rake in huge profits for corporations, it also contributes to what Mike
Davis calls a “permanent prison class.” Moreover, it legitimates a culture
of punishment and incarceration aimed most decisively at “African-American
males who make up less than 7 percent of the U.S. population, yet they
comprise almost half of the prison and jail population.” The racist
significance of this figure can be measured by a wide range of statistics, but
the shameful fact is that the number of African-Americans in prison far
exceeds the number of African-American males who commit crimes, and that on
any give day in this country “more than a third of the young
African-American men aged 18-34 in some of our major cities are either in
prison or under some form of criminal justice supervision.” Rather than
viewing “three strike” policies and mandatory sentencing as part of a
racist-inspired expression of domestic militarization and a source of massive
injustice, corporate America and conservative politicians embrace it as both a
new venue for profit and a legitimate expression of the market driven policies
of neoliberalism. Social costs and racial injustice, then, when compared to
corporate profit, are rendered irrelevant. How else to explain a recent New
York Times
article by Guy Trebay that focuses on “jailhouse chic” as
the latest in youth fashion. Surrendering any attempt at socially responsible
analysis, Trebay reports that the reason so many teens are turning prison garb
into a fashion statement is that an unprecedented number of youths are
incarcerated in the United States. When they get released, “they take part
of that culture with them.” The retail market for prison style work clothes
is so strong, Trebay points out, that prisons, such as those managed by the
Oregon Corrections Department, are gaining a foothold in the fashion market by
producing their own prison blues clothing.

Zero tolerance
policies have been especially cruel in the treatment of juvenile offenders.
Rather than attempting to work with youth and make an investment in their
psychological, economic, and social well being, a growing number of cities are
passing sweep laws—curfews and bans against loitering and
cruising—designed not only to keep youth off the streets, but to make it
easier to criminalize their behavior. For example, within the last decade,
“45 states…have passed or amended legislation making it easier to
prosecute juveniles as adults” and in some states “prosecutors can bump a
juvenile case into adult court at their own discretion.” A particularly
harsh example of these measures can be seen in the passing of Proposition 21
in California. The law makes it easier for prosecutors to try teens 14 and
older in adult court who are then convicted of felonies. These youth would
automatically be put in adult prison and be given lengthy mandated sentences.
The overall consequence of the law is to largely eliminate intervention
programs, increase the number of youth in prisons, especially minority youth,
and keep them there for longer periods of time. Moreover, the law is at odds
with a number of studies that indicate that putting youth in jail with adults
both increases recidivism and poses a grave danger to young offenders who, as
a recent Columbia University study suggested, are “five times as likely to
be raped, twice as likely to be beaten and eight times as likely to commit
suicide than adults in the adult prison system.”

The United
States is currently one of only seven countries (Congo, Iran, Nigeria,
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen) in the world that permit the death penalty
for juveniles. In the last decade it has executed more juvenile offenders than
all other countries combined that allow such executions. Given the assumption
among neoliberal hardliners that market values are more important than values
that involve trust, compassion, and solidarity, it is not surprising that Wall
Street’s emphasis on profits views the growth in the prison industry and the
growing incarceration of young people as good news. Gary Delgado reports that
even though “crime has dropped precipitously,” stock analyst Bob
Hirschfield notes that “males 15-17 years old are three times as likely to
be arrested than the population at large, and the proportion of 15-17 year
olds is expanding at twice the overall population.” Rather than being
alarmed, if not morally repulsed, over these figures, Hirschfield concludes
that it is a “great time to purchase shares” in the new prison growth

Zero tolerance
laws can be seen in the application of such laws in areas as different as
airport security, the criminal justice system, immigration policy, and drug
testing programs for athletes. The widespread use of these policies has
received a substantial amount of critical analyses within the last decade.
Unfortunately, these analyses rarely make connections between what is going on
in the criminal justice system and the public schools. While schools share
some proximity to prisons in that they are both about disciplining the body,
though for allegedly different purposes, little has been written about how
zero tolerance policies in schools resonate powerfully with prison practices
that signify a shift away from treating the body as a social investment (i.e.,
rehabilitation) to viewing it as a threat to security, demanding control,
surveillance, and punishment. Nor has anything been written on how such
practices have exceeded the boundaries of the prison-industrial complex,
providing models and perpetuating a shift in the very nature of educational
leadership and pedagogy. Of course, there are exceptions such as Lewis
Lapham’s lament that schools do more than teach students to take their place
within a highly iniquitous class-based society. In many larger cities, high
schools, according to Lapham, now “possess many of the same attributes as
minimum-security prisons—metal detectors in the corridors, zero tolerance
for rowdy behavior, the principal as a warden and the faculty familiar with
the syllabus of concealed weapons.” According to Lapham, schools resemble
prisons in that they both warehouse students to prevent flooding the labor
market while simultaneously “instilling the attitudes of passivity and
apprehension, which in turn induce the fear of authority and the habits of

Pedagogy in
this model of classroom management.relies heavily on those forms of
standardization and values that are consistent with the norms and relations
that drive the market economy. Teachers teach for the tests as students
behaviors are consistently monitored and knowledge is increasingly quantified.

Made over in
the image of corporate culture, schools are no longer valued as a public good
but as a private interest; hence, the appeal of such schools is about enabling
students to master the requirements of a market-driven economy. Under these
circumstances, many students find themselves in schools that lack any language
for relating the self to public life, social responsibility, or the
imperatives of democratic life. Lost in this discussion of schooling is any
notion of democratic community or models of leadership capable of raising
questions about what public schools should accomplish in a democracy and why
under certain circumstances, they fail.

The growth and
popularity of zero tolerance policies within the public schools have to be
understood as part of a broader educational reform movement in which the
market is now seen as the master design for all pedagogical encounters. At the
same time, the corporatizing of public schooling cannot be disassociated from
the assault on those public spheres within the larger society that provide the
conditions for greater democratic participation in shaping society. As the
state is downsized and support services dry up, containment policies become
the principle means to discipline youth and restrict dissent. Within this
context, zero tolerance legislation within the schools extends to young people
elements of harsh control and administration implemented in other public
spheres where inequalities breed the conditions for dissent and resistance.
Schools increasingly resemble other enervated public spheres as they cut back
on trained psychologists, school nurses, programs such as music, art,
athletics, and valuable after school activities. Jesse Jackson argues that
under such circumstances, schools do more than fail to provide students with a
well-rounded education, they often “bring in the police, [and] the school
gets turned into a feeder system for the penal system.”  In addition,
the growing movement to define schools as private interests rather than as
public assets not only reinforces the trend to administer them in ways that
resemble how prisons are governed, it also points to a disturbing tendency on
the part of adult society to direct a great deal of anger and resentment
toward youth.

The Pedagogy
of Zero Tolerance

educators first invoked zero tolerance rules against kids who brought guns to
schools. But over time the policy was broadened. In many districts school
administrators won’t tolerate even one instance of weapon possession, drug
use, or harassment. One of the most publicized cases took place recently in
Decatur, Illinois when 7 African American students, who participated in a
fight at a football game that lasted 17 seconds and was marked by the absence
of any weapons, were expelled for 2 years. Two of the young men were seniors
about to graduate. None of the boys at their hearing were allowed counsel or
the right to face their accusers; nor were their parents allowed any degree of
involvement in the case. When Jesse Jackson brought national attention to the
incident, the Decatur school board reduced the expulsions to one year.

Any sense of
perspective seems lost, as schools clamor for metal detectors, armed guards,
see-through knapsacks, and, in some cases, armed teachers. Some school systems
are investing in new software in order to “profile” students who might
exhibit criminal behavior. Two Virginia fifth-graders who allegedly put soap
in their teacher’s drinking water were charged with a felony. Officials at
Rangeview High School in Colorado, after unsuccessfully trying to expel a
student because they found three baseball bats on the floor of his car, ended
up suspending him. USA Today reported on two Illinois seven-year-olds
who were “suspended for having nail clippers with knifelike attachments.”
Jesse Jackson offers the example of a student who was suspended on a weapons
charge because school officials discovered a little rubber hammer as part of
his Halloween costume. Jackson provides another equally absurd example of a
student accused with a drug charge because he gave another youth two lemon
cough drops.

As Boston
columnist Ellen Goodman points out, zero tolerance has become a code
word for a “quick and dirty way of kicking kids out” of school. The
Denver Rocky Mountain News
reported in June 1999 that “partly as a
result of such rigor in enforcing Colorado’s zero tolerance law, the number
of kids kicked out of public schools has skyrocketed since 1993—from 437
before the law to nearly 2,000 in the 1996-1997 school year.”    

Zero tolerance
laws make it easier to expel students rather than for school administrators to
work with parents, community justice programs, religious organizations, and
social service agencies. Moreover, automatic expulsion policies do little to
either produce a safer school or society since as Clare Kittredge points out
“we already know that lack of attachment to the school is one of the prime
predictors of delinquency.” Zero tolerance policies and laws appear to be
well-tailored to mobilizing racialized codes and racial based moral panic. Not
only do most of the high profile zero tolerance cases, such as the Decatur
school incident often involve African American students, but such policies
also reinforce the racial inequities that plague school systems across the
country. Tamar Lewin, a writer for the New York Times, has reported on
a number of studies illustrating “that black students in public schools
across the country are far more likely than whites to be suspended or
expelled, and far less likely to be in gifted or advanced placement
classes.” Even in a city such as San Francisco, considered a bastion of
liberalism, African-American students pay a far greater price for zero
tolerance policies. Libero Della Piana reports, “According to data collected
by Justice Matters, a San Francisco agency advocating equity in education,
African Americans make up 52 percent of all suspended students in the
district—far in excess of the 16 percent of the general population.”

In Louisiana
board member Ray St. Pierre proposed that any student in junior high or high
school who is caught fighting “would be handcuffed inside the school by
sheriff’s deputies and taken to a juvenile facility where he would be
charged with disturbing the peace.” In case parents miss the point, they
would have to pay a cash bond for their child’s release.

In an attempt
to root out pedophiles in the public school system in the state of Maine, the
FBI is demanding that teachers submit to fingerprinting and criminal history
checks. Many teachers have refused to comply and may lose their certification
and jobs. Within the current climate of domestic militarization, it may be
just a matter of time before the surveillance cameras, profiling technologies,
and other tools of the penal state become a routine part of the climate of
teaching in America’s schools.

Zero tolerance
policies also rationalize misplaced legislative priorities. Instead of
investing in early childhood programs, repairing deteriorating school
buildings, and hiring more qualified teachers, schools now spend millions of
dollars to upgrade security. Fremont High School in Oakland, California built
a security fence costing $500,000 “while the heating remained out of

William Ayers
and Bernardine Dohrn rightly argue that zero tolerance policies do not teach
but punish and that students need not less but more tolerance. Ellen Goodman
echoes this view by claiming that schools that implement such laws are not
paying attention to children’s lives, because it is “harder to talk with
troubled teens than to profile them.” But these criticisms do not go far
enough. It is also necessary for educators to place school-based zero
tolerance policies within a broader context that makes it possible to see them
as part of the ideology of neoliberalism and domestic militarization that is
ravaging conditions for critical political agency, destroying the deployment
of even minimal ethical principles, and undermining the conditions necessary
within schools and other public spheres to produce the symbolic and material
resources necessary for critical citizenship, freedom, democracy, and justice.

Schooling and the Crisis
of Public Life

the state disengages from its role as a mediator between capital and human
needs, and market forces bear heavily on redefining the meaning of education
as a private enterprise, it becomes more difficult to imagine public schools
as important contested sites in the struggle for civic education and authentic
democracy. Educators and others need to struggle both for public space and a
public dialogue about how to imagine reappropriating a notion of politics that
is linked to the regime of authentic democracy while simultaneously
articulating a new discourse, set of theoretical tools, and social
possibilities for reviving civic education as basis for political agency and
social transformation. Zero tolerance is not the problem as much as it
is symptomatic of a much broader set of issues centered around the gulf
between the regime of the political—everything that concerns modes of power,
and the realm of politics—the multiple ways in which human beings
question established power, transform institutions, and reject “all
authority that would fail to render an account and provide reasons…for the
validity of its pronouncements.”

The war against
youth must be understood as an attempt to contain, warehouse, control, and
even eliminate all those groups and social formations that the market finds
expendable (i.e., unable to further the interests of the bottom line or the
logic of cost effectiveness). For progressives, this suggests a decisive and
important struggle over a notion of politics that refuses the ongoing attempts
to make public life irrelevant, if not dangerous, by replacing an ethic of
reciprocity and mutual responsibility with a market-driven ethic of
individualism in which “competitiveness is the only human ethic, one that
promotes a war against all.”

 There is
also a responsibility to revive a notion of cultural politics that makes
politics more pedagogical and the pedagogical a permanent feature of politics
in a wide variety of sites, including schools. In this instance, politics is
inextricably connected to pedagogies that effectively mobilize the beliefs,
desires, and forms of persuasion that organize and give meaning to particular
strategies of social engagement. Challenging neoliberal hegemony as a form of
domination is crucial to reclaiming an alternative notion of the political and
rearticulating the relationship between political agency and substantive

and other cultural workers bear an enormous responsibility in opposing
neoliberalism by bringing democratic political culture back to life. Part of
this challenge suggests creating new locations of struggle, vocabularies, and
subject positions that allow people in a wide variety of public spheres to
become more than they are now, to question what it is they have become within
existing institutional and social formations and “to give some thought to
their experiences so that they can transform their relations of subordination
and oppression.” Cornelius Castoriadis insightfully argues that for any
regime of democracy to be vital, it needs to create citizens who are critical
thinkers capable of calling existing institutions into question, asserting
individual rights, and assuming public responsibility. In this instance,
critical pedagogy as an alternative form of civic education and literacy
provides oppositional knowledges, skills, and theoretical tools for
highlighting the workings of power and reclaiming the possibility of
intervening in its operations and effects. But Castoriadis also suggests that
civic education must be linked to the task of creating new locations of
struggle that offer critical opportunities for experiencing political agency
within social domains that provide the concrete conditions in which people can
exercise their capacities and skills “as part of the very process of
governing.” In this context culture becomes a space for hope, and pedagogy
becomes a valuable tool in reclaiming the promise of democracy.

Zero tolerance
has become a metaphor for hollowing out the state and expanding the forces of
domestic militarization, for reducing democracy to the rule of capital, and
replacing an ethic of mutual aid with an appeal to excessive individualism and
social indifference. As despairing as these conditions appear, they
increasingly have become the basis for a surge of political resistance on the
part of many youth, intellectuals, labor unions, educators, and other
activists and social movements. Under such circumstances, it is time to remind
ourselves that collective problems deserve collective solutions and that what
is at risk is not only a generation of young people now considered to be
generation of suspects, but the very promise of democracy itself. The issue is
no longer whether it is possible to invest in the idea of the political and
politics but what are the consequences for not doing so.

Giroux is a faculty member at Penn State and is author of
The Mouse
That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence.