Are Zero Tolerance policies effective? This documentary aims to find out.

Creating a positive school climate is a challenging endeavor, especially in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. There, student aggression, unstable domestic lives, and academic lethargy can feel like an unsurmountable hurdle.

This was the situation facing the faculty and staff in the 1980’s at Eastside High School in Patterson, New Jersey. This urban school, and the strict disciplinary methods used by then Principal Joe Clark, became the seedbed for a new approach to school discipline that came to be know as “zero tolerance.”

As society grapples with the rising tide of delinquent students graduating to a life of incarceration, it is helpful to look back at what exactly brought on such strict disciplinary policies like zero tolerance.

recent documentary from Retro Report, with help from The New York Times and the Center for Public Integrity, offers a compelling view of the history of zero tolerance and its repercussions.

The most revealing part of the documentary are the reflections of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr.

Holder served as U.S. Deputy Attorney General in the late 90’s when zero tolerance legislation swept the nation as a response to tragedies like Columbine High School. He, along with many legislative and academic leaders of the time, believed that severe methods of discipline—such as expulsion and suspension for even minor infractions—was the only way to keep the schools of the nation safe from the violence they all witnessed at Columbine.

“There was the need in some neighborhoods for police officer presence to be there,” Holder explains in the documentary. “The hope was to make schools safer, to make our nation safer.”

By the late ’90’s, Joe Clark’s revolutionary approach to school discipline brought hope to educators in a time when drug-related violence was the news of the day.

While most principals would never consider brandishing a baseball bat or a bullhorn while patrolling the school halls searching for “miscreants,” the idea of ridding the campus of dangerously aggressive and “incorrigible” students, seemed the only way to provide the good students a safe environment in which to learn.

Eric Holder expressed the fears of the day in a television interview with CNN as he promoted the idea of zero tolerance legislation, “We gotta be tough, and we have to take those young people and separate them from society.”

So in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Congress passed laws and designated funding to place hundreds of police officers and metal detectors in school systems. Zero tolerance had become a national, federally-funded policy.

But today, Eric Holder, and many others, are seeking alternative disciplinary methods that can stop or even reverse the effects of zero tolerance policies.

“My view on things have probably evolved, but it is because of my willingness to accept facts,” Holder says. “The pendulum swung too far in the wrong direction in the 1990’s.”

Eric Holder has been helping the Department of Education write new discipline guidelines since 2014 promoting restorative justice methods and other positive school climate policies.

“The reality is kids are kids. They do things that are disruptive. They do things that are ‘bad’ sometimes. We put in place a series of zero tolerance policies that might have been aimed at gun violence, but that had a much more encompassing effect.” – Eric Holder

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