Lockdown High: Zero-Tolerance Policies and Authoritarian Learning

supreme courtHere is today’s column in USA Today concerning the argument today before the United States Supreme Court in the case of April Redding.

In Manassas, Va., a 9-year-old student was suspended for giving a friend a Certs breath mint under a policy that not only bans any drugs but also anything that looks like a drug. A girl in Oklahoma was suspended for bringing a prescription hormone tablet to school to deal with her ovarian disease. At least 20 students in four states have been suspended for bringing Alka-Seltzer to their schools. Under zero-tolerance policies, officials across the country have been suspending kids for possession of aspirin, cough medicine and even sunscreen. The question is what lessons are being taught to our children about basic rights of speech, privacy and due process. Even more troubling, what type of citizens are we shaping in this increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian atmosphere?

(Looking for justice: April Redding helped daughter Savana sue school officials in Arizona./ David M. Sanders for USA TODAY)

This controversy will be before the U.S. Supreme Court today in the case of Savana Redding. Six years ago, Savana was a 13-year-old eighth-grader when her friend was found with prescription ibuprofen pills. When the friend was searched, teachers at her Arizona school also found a day-planner that Redding had loaned her. The friend implicated Redding as the source of the ibuprofen. A good student without disciplinary problems, Redding was confronted by assistant principal Kerry Wilson. She denied any knowledge of the pills but agreed to let Wilson search her bag. When no ibuprofen was found, Redding was taken to the nurse’s office and told to strip down to her underwear in front of the school nurse and an administrative assistant, both women. She stood in her underwear and bra as the two went through her clothes. Finding nothing, they then made the teen move her bra and panties, exposing her breasts and pelvic area.

Redding sued. After a lower court found the search to be unreasonable, the Supreme Court took up the issue the latest in a long line of cases that have treated students as little more than legal nonentities.

Conflicting rationales

This is a far cry from 1969, when the Supreme Court insisted that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Over the next few decades, however, a new and more conservative majority chipped away at these rights to the point that most are now lost long before students even approach the schoolhouse gate. Indeed, the courts have allowed students to be punished for speech occurring outside of school, including on social networking sites.

The Supreme Court has given shifting and conflicting rationales to justify school searches. In 1985, it ruled that students have little expectation of privacy in schools a self-fulfilling prophecy given its failure to protect their rights. Ten years later, in Vernonia School District v. Acton, the court allowed random suspicionless drug testing of student athletes. But the justices based their decision on the school’s history of drug problems and the fact that athletes were susceptible to a particular danger of injury if using drugs. The court insisted that athletes have less expectation of privacy because they have to undress in open locker rooms and that forcing teenagers to urinate in cups under the supervision of teachers was a “negligible” intrusion.

Then, in 2002, the court all but abandoned its earlier logic. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that it did not matter if there was no history of drug problems in Tecumseh, Okla., and dismissed the notion that athletes warranted different treatment. The court allowed random and suspicionless testing of any students in extracurricular activities from 4-H to chess club. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, mocking the “nightmarish images of out-of-control flatware, livestock run amok, and colliding tubas disturbing the peace and quiet of Tecumseh.”

In the current case, few people would disagree that the search of Redding’s backpack was justified. After all, there had been a couple of prior incidents involving drugs at the school, and the teachers heard that students were planning to take the ibuprofen at lunch as a dare. Yet, the quantum leap from a bag search to a strip search shows how the court has created virtual feudal estates where students are treated as scholastic serfs.

The long-term effect

The impact of such a search on a 13-year-old girl being stripped in front of teachers is obvious and severe. Ironically, nurses at most public schools cannot give a student an aspirin without notifying and getting the consent of the parents. Yet, rather than simply hold the student for parents or police, the school can force the child to strip and expose herself without even notice to the parents.

We need to think seriously about the type of citizens being shaped in these authoritarian environments. These kids are learning that they must accept arbitrary and often illogical actions by public figures. This month in Virginia, an honors high school student was suspended and faces expulsion for taking her prescribed birth control pill in school. With such cases, the government appears to be training a generation of passive citizens ideal for subjugation and control.

In the name of maintaining safe schools, we have created rights-free zones that treat free speech and privacy as virtual threats to education. When citizens learn rights as mere abstractions, we should not be surprised when they treat their obligations as citizens with the same disregard. Until rights join writing and arithmetic as required components of public education, our schools will remain laboratories of authoritarian living.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

30 thoughts on “Lockdown High: Zero-Tolerance Policies and Authoritarian Learning

  1. Bravo. I hope the SCOTUS will return us to the enlightened days of Tinker, but given its current composition, I suspect the Scalia faction will keep us locked in the Dark Ages of Bush.

  2. I can only hope that the Supreme Court will affirm the ruling of the lower courts, though I’m sure I’ll turn on NPR this afternoon to hear Nina Totenberg tell us all about some of the riduculous questions and comments that Justices Alito and Roberts will undoubtedly utter. I believe you said it best, Mr. Turley, when you exposed zero tolerance policies for what they really are: zero thought policies.

    “These kids are learning that they must accept arbitrary and often illogical actions by public figures.”

    I have a younger and brother and sister who are still in grade school (my father remarried a much younger woman and had children with her). They often tell me of the ridiculous rules they have at their school. For instance, they are not allowed to use mechanical pencils (you know, those little Bic ones that you don’t have to sharpen). I asked them why and they just gave me a blank stare. Neither was given any reason for this, although my father chimed in that the school told him that “they could be used as weapons.” I’m not sure if that is actually why, but either way, it is a pointless rule. In all reality, it doesn’t really matter, but making rules just for the sake of making rules is a disturbing problem that is pervasive throughout our entire society.

    This gets me thinking back to a curious event that took place when I was in middle school. We got a new principal midway through a school year. Within a few weeks, she had built up a reputation as a strict disciplinarian (I don’t recall why, but this was a public school so there wasn’t any whippings or anything like that). A few students began distributing flyers telling other students to boycott the school lunches in an effort to pressure the principal to either change her attitude or quit. All of the students who made the flyers and who received them were severely punished, including suspensions for the people who distributed the flyers. The problem of overly harsh punishment in schools (all under the guise of being tough on unruly children, akin to politicians claiming to be tough on crime) has been a problem for a long time, not just in recent years.

  3. I’m glad you emphasized the authoritarian nature of our schools. These cases fit right in with restrictions on free speech when students “get high” on freedom of the press in their school newspapers.

    Stip searching a student is a particularly damaging form of abuse. 1 in 3 of our girls and 1 in 4 of our boys are believed to be victims of sexual abuse. The danger of increasing that number by even 1 far outweighs any need to know about drugs.

    These actions cannot be justified for any reason. I hope the SC will do the right thing and make certain such a thing does not happen to one more child.

  4. I can only hope that the Sct does what is truly correct. Face it, we have different standards for different areas of the country, depending on who you are. If Obama, Cheney or the Bush girls were treated this way. I believe that we would indeed have a new headmaster, don’t you agree?

  5. I was in a CO high school immediately after the murders at Columbine. While the school was always badly run (we had at least one teacher who drank on the job, another who wasn’t disciplined after cutting a sleeping students hair, a teacher with obvious mental health issues, etc.) it became surreal after the No Tolerance policy was put in place. The absolute arbitrary nature of the rules made it impossible to pretend they were anything other than small scale tyrants flexing their new found muscles.

    I think the larger point is that it was the best possible foreshadowing of “The Patriot Act.” I was in no way surprised when the Bush administration made a power grab using the fear of the populace as justification. Not only did I know my history I LIVED my history.

  6. No tolerance policies actually follow a historical American thread that at base is a “spare the rod…..” philosophy. The
    Right wing in the 60’s was so freaked by children “dissing” their elders that they have returned to clinging to a philosophy that says that only the most docile children are good and the rest must be brought to heel. It makes me laugh that supposed “family values” people actually only love their children when they behave. Most of them who espouse “family values” have little idea of what being a good parent is. Any principal who suspended my child for passing a Cert, would know the wrath of a loving father. If that entails spending money on a lawsuit, so be it.

    In high school many years ago my Spanish teacher slapped me.
    The next day the principal was visited by my 6’2″ father, who proceeded to have the teacher publicly apologize to me. My father punished me for my snottiness that caused the teacher to snap, but he wasn’t about to let his son be corporeally punished or humiliated. Parent who sit still for the nonsense that is zero tolerance are not good parents, when the offense is non-existent.

  7. Interesting if the school can strip search a student in an attempt to find perfectly legal and appropriate medications, but social workers assigned with the task of protecting the specific child can’t do the same to determine if the child has been abused. Goes to who what’s really important.

  8. First let me say I liked your article. I believe our students rights are being trumped, and zero tolerance has gone too far.

    But how can you associate conservatives with chipping away at students rights?

    “Over the next few decades, however, a new and more conservative majority chipped away at these rights to the point that most are now lost long before students even approach the schoolhouse gate.”

    You obviously don’t understand that what conservativism means. let me define it for you. Conservativism is a variation of the word conserve, meaning to perserve, and in the case of politics, it means to preserve traditions and constitutional rights.

    I think a better phrase you could have used would be “Constitutional Liberalism.” Don’t know what that means? well lets break it down. It means one has a “liberal” view point on constitutional rights. Modifying how the 1st ammendment applies to students, would be a prime example.

    Now please don’t confuse good old common sense with extreme “authoritarianism”. Your rights end when another person’s begins. For example, punishing a student for being disruptive in class or wearing offensive T-shirts is not chipping away at their rights. The disruptive student is infringing on other students’ right to learn.

    I don’t know what political party you are afiliated with, but I have a pretty good idea. And it’s articles like this that use subliminal messaging to tar the conservative movement.

  9. Oh, Chris. Did you actually read your post before hitting the submit key?

    Was strip searching a 13-year-old girl in a search for a tylenol “authoritarianism” or was it “good old common sense?”

    I don’t know what political party you are afilliated with, but I have a pretty good idea. And it’s posts like yours that make it hard to take the conservative movement seriously.

  10. A Conservative is a Conservative until the conservative has nothing to conserve.

    People initially thought Adolph was good for Germany. He had legions of followers. Well look where it go him.

  11. Chris,

    Conservatism has been bastardized by the modern political machine in the US. As I’m sure you know, the definitions of conservative and liberal have changed many times throughout the years. Currently, most Americans associate “conservatism” with the politics of the George Bush/Ronald Reagan crowd.

  12. basically a conservative is a liberal in the classic sense of the word. A belief in individual liberty, free market capitalism and personal responsibility. Modern day liberals have typically usurped the word to their own use and are usually anti-individual rights and are against free markets. They also typically think that because someone is less well-off it is because of greedy capitalists steeling the fruits of the workers labor.

    It is classic statist tactics, attribute to your enemy an undesireable trait(s) and to yourself positive traits. Who wouldnt want to be “progressive”, liberal, etc. all the while believing in big government, centralized control, etc. and using the poor and helpless as pawns for gaining power over others.

    It should be noted that most school systems are populated with people from the left side of the political spectrum and teachers unions are a dominant force. So I dont think we can attribute this to “conservatives”.

    Please dont confuse conservatives with fundamentalists.

  13. From Dictionary.com

       /kənˈsɜrvətɪv/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [kuhn-sur-vuh-tiv] Show IPA
    1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
    2. cautiously moderate or purposefully low: a conservative estimate.
    3. traditional in style or manner; avoiding novelty or showiness: conservative suit.
    4. (often initial capital letter) of or pertaining to the Conservative party.
    5. (initial capital letter) of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Conservative Jews or Conservative Judaism.
    6. having the power or tendency to conserve; preservative.
    7. Mathematics. (of a vector or vector function) having curl equal to zero; irrotational; lamellar.
    8. a person who is conservative in principles, actions, habits, etc.
    9. a supporter of conservative political policies.
    10. (initial capital letter) a member of a conservative political party, esp. the Conservative party in Great Britain.
    11. a preservative.
    1350–1400; < LL conservātīvus, equiv. to L conservāt(us) (see conservation ) + -īvus -ive; r. ME conservatif < MF < L, as above

       /ˈlɪbərəl, ˈlɪbrəl/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [lib-er-uhl, lib-ruhl] Show IPA
    1. favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
    2. (often initial capital letter) noting or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform.
    3. of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism.
    4. favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
    5. favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
    6. of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.
    7. free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant: a liberal attitude toward foreigners.
    8. open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.
    9. characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts: a liberal donor.
    10. given freely or abundantly; generous: a liberal donation.
    11. not strict or rigorous; free; not literal: a liberal interpretation of a rule.
    12. of, pertaining to, or based on the liberal arts.
    13. of, pertaining to, or befitting a freeman.
    14. a person of liberal principles or views, esp. in politics or religion.
    15. (often initial capital letter) a member of a liberal party in politics, esp. of the Liberal party in Great Britain.
    1325–75; ME < L līberālis of freedom, befitting the free, equiv. to līber free + -ālis -al 1

    Does not sound from the definition I want to be a conservative.

    How about you?

  14. I was going to type pretty much exactly what you type, without the accusatory and inflammatory subtext. I decided that I didn’t really want to explain how classical liberalism and modern liberalism are nearly polar opposites…etc.

    Generalizations and stereotyping do no one any good. There are dissenters within any group and it is very dangerous to act as if they do not exist. We should all be reluctant to paint anyone with the big broad brush.

  15. Anonymously Yours:

    you have made my point with your definitions which were probably developed by a statist. You are correct however that we wish to preserve the constitution of the US and we have a desire to go back to the principles of our founding. A more nobler form of government than republican democracy has yet to be conceived by the mind of man.

    We are less free because of people like George Bush and Richard Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt, all believers in big government and/or centralized control.

  16. Bystander,

    Your above points re: traditional conservatives are well known here courtesy of Bron98. But thanks for reminding the audience.

  17. Right now 3-4 regulars consider themselves conservatives, but in the sense that you described, not the Neocon sense of the term. We welcome diverse opinion, as opposed to propaganda. Bron is actually a convert. He came in here swinging the Kool-Aid stick but logic finally got the better of him. :D

  18. But most are probably self described liberals. I prefer to think of myself as a Humanist and Jeffersonian Constitutionalist.

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