Anthony Ruelas broke the rules. That much is true. He disobeyed a teacher’s orders, hurled out a curse word and touched another student. These things cannot be disputed, but he did potentially save a young woman’s life. Last week at Gateway Middle School, an alternative school, in Killeen, a fellow classmate of Ruelas’s, Tishica Fisher, began having an asthma attack. She was wheezing and gagging, falling out of her chair and onto the floor. “All I know is I blacked out, and I felt myself getting picked up by somebody,” Fisher told the Washington Post. Ruelas physically took Fisher to the nurse’s office, ignoring his teacher’s demand that everyone stay put while she waits on an email reply from the school nurse. He didn’t stand idly by, he took action, which is commendable. But this is the land of Texas public schools’ strict zero-tolerance policies, Ruelas was suspended for two days. This is where draconian measures prevail, even when insubordination seems practical.
Zero-tolerance policies, which have been widespread in the country since a push in the eighties and nineties to prevent drugs and weapons from finding their way on campuses, have resulted in overzealous punishments and have caused more harm than good. Last year, thanks in part to a zero tolerance policy, Texas became a national trending topic because of a shameful incident in Irving. We’re probably all familiar with the curious case of ninth grader Ahmed Mohamed and his clock. After being arrested, interrogated and fingerprinted, Mohamed was suspended for three days.
Michael Gilbert, a UT-San Antonio associate professor who researches discipline in schools, told the Dallas Morning News after Mohamed’s arrest that “zero-tolerance has cornered our thinking so much that it prevents us from seeing the reality around us. I call it zero-intelligence.” In an interview with the Texas Standard, Gilbert said that zero tolerance policies absolve “school administrators and teachers from their real true role of thinking critically about the interactions that they’re having with the kids and the nature of the circumstances,” and added that these policies are “based on stereotypes and really very simplistic thinking about situations.”
A large factor in the Irving incident was, of course, Islamophobia. A brown kid named Ahmed Mohamed brought a thing to school that kind-of-sort-of looked like a cartoon bomb—but was a clock. This is scary for people who are afraid of Muslims. Nonetheless, zero-tolerance policies also disproportionately affect minority students. According to a 462-page report by the the Council of State Governments Justice Center, black students specifically are disciplined at higher rates than their peers, without evidence of more misbehavior. Overall, the reports says, “Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students are suspended at disproportionately high rates” and typically face harsher punishments than white students for the same offenses.
Additionally, zero-tolerance policies facilitate the school-to-prison pipeline, which according to the ACLU says are “policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The ACLU argues that “harsh penalties for minor misbehavior” added with a lack of due process, particularly with those who are at risk or special needs, leaves students falling behind. This increases the likelihood of dropouts, which increases their chances of entering the criminal justice system. In Ruelas’s case, he will start being homeschooled by his aunt.
There is hope yet when it comes to zero-tolerance policies. Nationally, the policies are being maligned by thoughtful educators, scholars and journalists and last year, the Texas Senate passed SB 107, a bill that seeks to address zero-tolerance policies such as accidentally bringing a shotgun shell to school or defending oneself in an altercation. The bill passed 29-1 in the Senate and became a law in June 2015. These are good steps, but as we see the ugly parts of zero tolerance still affecting schoolchildren, it brings urgency to quickly and efficiently reforming school discipline.