School Spirit or Gang Signs? 'Zero Tolerance' Comes Under Fire

NBC News - Fifteen-year-old Dontadrian Bruce was suspended from his school for unknowingly holding up a gang sign in a school photograph, raising the question of whether a 'zero tolerance' rule should apply.

NBC News — OLIVE BRANCH, Miss. — On the last Friday in January, 15-year-old Dontadrian Bruce was finishing up his biology project at Olive Branch High School. He and his group had constructed a double helix out of Legos, and his teacher asked them to pose for a picture with their project. Bruce smiled and held up three fingers—his thumb, forefinger, and middle finger, palm facing outward. The teacher snapped a photo on her phone and went onto the next group.

On Monday morning, Bruce was summoned out of first-period English by assistant principal Todd Nichols, who showed him the photo. “You’re suspended because you’re holding up gang signs in this picture,” said Nichols, according to Bruce. “You’re a gangbanger.”

Bruce explained that he was simply representing the number on his football jersey, “3,” and that all the kids did it in football practice. He also said he had no idea the gesture was known to signal affiliation with the Vice Lords, a Chicago-based gang with a strong presence in Memphis, Tenn., 20 miles north of Olive Branch.

“I was trying to tell my side, and it was like they didn’t even care,” said Bruce. When his mother, Janet Hightower, received a call from the school, she was shocked at the news. Her son had never been in trouble like that before, she said, and he made As and Bs.

“He’s a good child,” Hightower said. “I know what he does 24 hours a day. If he leaves home and goes two houses down, he’s gonna text me and let me know.”

When Hightower arrived at the school, she was shown the picture, and that same day, February 3, Bruce was sent home. On February 6, Bruce appeared before a disciplinary hearing officer who decided his fate: “Indefinite suspension with a recommendation of expulsion.”

Bruce’s punishment is a particularly vivid example of what can result when fear of gang activity in schools collides with the contentious policy known as “zero tolerance”—a term describing school rules that favor suspensions and expulsions, even in the case of minor infractions.

Zero tolerance stems from the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated that schools expel students found with firearms or face losing federal funding. The law was originally passed to respond to an increase in gun violence in schools. With the help of this policy, the number of high school students suspended or expelled during a school year has increased by around 40 percent in the past four decades. Ninety-five percent of suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior, according to federal government figures.

Zero tolerance’s effectiveness has been hotly debated. Defenders say it’s the best way to ensure safety and maintain an environment free of distractions; critics deride it as “zero intelligence,” claiming that it’s counterproductive and breeds racial profiling. Some states, like Maryland, have been re-evaluating their disciplinary policies to address these criticisms. In January, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncanurged educators to rethink zero tolerance policies, advocating “locally-tailored approaches” instead of knee-jerk punishment. Exclusionary discipline is “applied disproportionately to children of color,” Duncan said. “Educationally, and morally, that status quo is simply unacceptable.”

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