School Spirit or Gang Signs? 'Zero Tolerance' Comes Under Fire
By Nona Willis Aronowitz, 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 Duncan urged 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."
has numbers to back up his claim. The federal government found that of 3
million children suspended or expelled during the 2010-11 school year,
the overwhelming majority — 7 out of 10 — were black, Latino or kids with disabilities.
This echoes independent studies, like a 2013 report
by the University of California at Los Angeles Civil Rights Project,
which found that one in four African-American students in secondary
schools was suspended at least once in the 2009-10 academic year,
compared to one in 16 white students.
the evidence is there at every single [disciplinary] level, then
clearly you have a problem," said Meg Clifford, a researcher at the
University of Texas' William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest
Perhaps nothing illustrates
this apparent bias better than accusations of gang activity, which can
be notoriously hard to prove, as they rest on evaluations of clothing
colors, accessories and hand signals often outlined in school gang
Such evaluations can easily turn into controversy. In January, a mostly-white Wisconsin school district made headlines
when officials suspended two black basketball players for using hand
gestures that "looked like" gang signs (the suspension was eventually overturned following a media avalanche). This fall, a teen in a Houston suburb who was expelled for gang activity claimed a police officer "tricked" him into making hang signals.
Mississippi's DeSoto County, which encompasses Olive Branch High
School, has been embroiled in this kind of maelstrom before—in 2009, the
ACLU sued the district
after school authorities searched a middle-school honor student's cell
phone and expelled him after discovering photos of "gang-related
activity," or, according to the student, selfies he took while dancing
in his bathroom. The DeSoto County superintendent's office declined
comment on the specifics of both this case and Bruce's case, saying it
could not discuss students. (The district did, however, deny that Bruce
had been out of school since February 3. "When you say this person has
been out for this long, that's all rumor," said a representative at the
district office on February 21.)
Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, works to break down the
"school-to-prison pipeline"—the idea that exclusionary punishment,
sometimes for minor incidents, can often lead students down a spiral
ending in jail. "It becomes a matter of the wrong clothes or the wrong
shoes or even shoelaces," she said. "The behavior is really subjectively
When the evidence
is so subjective—when a supposed moment of pride in a football jersey
can become grounds for expulsion—it has the potential to inflame an
entire community. Within a week of Bruce's indefinite suspension, a Facebook page
cropped up calling for Bruce to return to school; it eventually got
more than 2,300 "likes." Bruce's family contacted the ACLU and the
DeSoto County branch of the NAACP. In solidarity, a racially diverse
group of 21 other students, including Bruce's older brother, posed with
the same "3" hand gesture and subsequently got suspended, too. Hightower
was "missing work, not sleeping, not eating," being bounced between
emails, phone calls, and meetings at the school, in order to get Bruce
reinstated, she said.
If you ask
Bruce's stepfather, Marcus Guy, a white student would have been doled
out little more than a warning. "I was born and raised here, graduated
from Olive Branch, and I'm telling you: they would have done nothing,"
Bruce is a noticeably
shy, soft-spoken, polite teenager, mostly giving two-word answers to
questions: "No, ma'am." "Yes ma'am." But when asked about race, he was
very explicit: "They figured I was a gang member because of my color."
asked whether white students and non-white students are treated
differently, associate superintendent Keith Williams, who is black, said
in an interview that the administration "strive[s] to be consistent and
equitable in enforcing our policies…whether that be based on gender or
On DeSoto County's district website, there is a 30-page,
artfully illustrated guide outlining all the different ways a kid could
be suspected of gang activity. The guide presents hand gestures,
symbols, tattoos, "team colors," and flags. Associate superintendent Van
Alexander said in an interview that he "wasn't aware of any specific
zero tolerance policy"—indeed, DeSoto County never prints the actual
phrase "zero tolerance"— but on the first page of the guide, it warns
that these signs will be subject to "discipline…up to and including
taken a hard line on discipline in the past; in 2009, when the ACLU
filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district, superintendent Milton
Kuykendall wrote in an op-ed
for The Commercial Appeal that the ACLU was "attacking the Code of
Discipline in DeSoto County Schools," that "our number one priority is
safety," and that "no gang signs, clothing, photos or behavior will be
tolerated at school."
"DCS is dedicated to treating all students fairly regardless of race," he wrote, "but everyone must obey the rules."
one thing is clear: Neither Bruce nor his parents were aware of said
rules, despite its presence online and in the parents' handbook.
sits down and reads a handbook?" said Hightower. "At the beginning of
school, they should get all the kids in the gym and explain to them zero
tolerance, that if you throw [certain hand signals] up, you're out."
But some experts don't
even think that's fair—warnings can be slippery slopes, too. In certain
school districts in Texas, said Clifford, students suspected of gang
activity are made to sign "gang contracts," documents that state they
know that gangs are bad and that they're not supposed to be involved
said Clifford, "is that these contracts are shared with the police. They
carry a certain amount of weight and impact. They're used as a first
notice," but when these contracts are issued, typically "the kid has no
chance to explain their side of the story." Meanwhile, she said, police
have already placed a target on the child.
course, gang-related violence in some schools is a real issue, and zero
tolerance is a response to that. The Spring Independent School District
in the Houston area—the same district caught up in the expulsion
controversy last fall— saw 72 incidents
of gang-related violence involving three or more gang members from 2009
through 2012. Yet some feel that even if the students are involved with
gangs, it's still not a good idea to kick them out of school.
"Why would you want that child to be
expelled to the street?" said Fowler. "I would think those would be the
kids we'd most want to encourage to stay in school."
Joel Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project and VOYCE in Chicago—which has more gang members
than any other city in the country— said part of the problem is
administrators who don't bother to investigate individual cases. "With
schools who have zero tolerance, it's very rare that they get to know
that young person," he said. "They go by the book and say ‘you're outta
In Bruce's case, many
people in Olive Branch say that a cursory glance at his record would
have exonerated him before expulsion became an option. Scott Samsel,
Bruce's football coach up until January who's known him since sixth
grade, said he'd "be shocked if [Bruce] was associated with any type of
gang." Being on the football team "is a year-long proposition. We have
our hands on ‘em year-round. A kid would have to be pretty crafty to be
able to hide [gang affiliation] from us." (Jeremy Toungett, Olive Branch
High School's current football coach, declined to comment.)
Fowler said a policy of
"suspend first, investigate later" is "misguided, at best." Yet the
experts aren't in agreement about what should replace zero tolerance.
Coulson, director for the Center of Educational Freedom at the Cato
Institute, says that although problems exist with zero tolerance, he's
wary of the Department of Education's new recommendation to scale back
exclusionary discipline, saying the idea is "a bit utopian" and "not
likely to help matters." Citing a study
by University of Rochester economics professor Joshua Kinsler, he said
keeping disruptive students in school "is likely to widen the
black-white achievement gap because keeping [these kids] in school is
causing overall school performance to go down." (Fowler said that recent studies show no difference in academic performance between schools with high and low expulsion rates.)
Critics of zero tolerance advocate instead for restorative justice programs
that emphasize peer juries and conflict resolution. Coulson also said
that private schools have better disciplinary track records because
their principals have more autonomy and the school administration has a
vested interest in keeping kids in school. But Rodriguez countered that,
public or private, it comes down to something more simple: resources.
schools have more counselors and highly trained security, and highly
trained teachers, it goes a long way," he said. "Especially in
low-income neighborhoods, students really need the proper support."
to prevent cases like Bruce's, where a kid may not be part of a gang at
all, Rodriguez said administrators need to give kids the benefit of the
"They could be straight
honor roll, but they're almost treated as guilty until proven innocent,"
he said. "Just talk to them. We have to put relationships back in the
In the wake of several local news
reports and an explosion of social media activity, Bruce ultimately was
invited back to school. The administration now considers the case closed
and maintains that due process was granted. But Bruce's mother isn't
Hightower is working with
an ACLU attorney on making sure the incident doesn't impact her son's
permanent record or school performance. Bruce returned to school on
Monday, February 24th—21 days from his initial suspension, according to
Bruce and his family—but Hightower hasn't yet signed the papers agreeing
to a one-year probation for her son.
Meanwhile, the school says they might be re-evaluating their policies.
looking at possible revisions for the upcoming school year," said
Alexander. "But safety still has to be the number one priority. It just
has to be."
Friday, August 29 2014 4:14 PM EDT2014-08-29 20:14:56 GMT
Officials said they discovered on July 24 that 1,700 index cards maintained by Children's Special Services were missing.More >>
Officials said they discovered on July 24 that 1,700 index cards maintained by Children's Special Services were missing. The cards contain information about clients, including names, addresses and Social Security numbers.More >>
Friday, August 29 2014 3:20 PM EDT2014-08-29 19:20:14 GMT
Tony Stewart should be back in his comfort zone at a NASCAR track, ready for racing.More >>
Unshaven and with a quivering voice, NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart said the death of Kevin Ward Jr. will "affect my life forever" as he returned to the track Friday for the first time since his car struck and killed the...More >>
Friday, August 29 2014 2:00 PM EDT2014-08-29 18:00:30 GMT
Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May says the country has raised the terror threat level from substantial to severe, but says there is no specific threat.More >>
Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Friday to plug gaps in Britain's armory to combat terror, describing the extremist threat posed by the Islamic State group as being more dangerous than even that of al-Qaida.More >>
While you were sleeping, the Internet never stopped… Here's what's trending today. ‘Exasperated' boy reacts to mom's pregnancy "What were you thinking? This makes no sense… This is exasperating!" AMore >>
While you were sleeping, the Internet never stopped… Here's what's trending today.More >>