Hunter’s Story Tells Us Why Zero Tolerance Doesn’t Work

By Scott Roberts

The story of Hunter Spanjer, a 3-year-old deaf boy from Nebraska whose school has tried to change the way he signs his name, has captured the attention of the nation. Apparently, the way Hunter has been taught to sign his name violated the local school districts ‘zero-tolerance’ policy because it ‘looks like a gun.’ With a decision that defies common sense and unfairly singles out Hunter for being different, school officials are now at the center of attention as the public is appalled by what appears to be an extreme case of school discipline-gone-wrong.

Watch this video of Hunter’s story.

To the contrary, the dynamics playing out in Hunter’s story are quite common in schools around the country. Zero-Tolerance school discipline policies are very prevalent and far too often have a negative effect on students who are in some way or another different from their classmates or society at-large. In fact, students with disabilities like Hunter will go through their entire educational experience at higher risk of being suspended, expelled and even arrested at school.

In a recent study by the Civil Rights Project found that students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended than their peers without disabilities. As for the consequences of higher rates of suspensions, the Civil Rights Project writes:

‘Robust research demonstrates that frequent suspension is not an effective educational practice, as it improves neither school safety nor student outcomes for those disciplined, nor does it improve the performance of high-suspending districts. In fact, disciplinary exclusion from school is criticized by both the American Academy of Pediatrics on health and safety grounds (AAP, 2008), and the American Psychological Association (APA, 2008). In fact, the research links suspensions with higher risk for retention in grade, dropping out, and involvement with the juvenile justice system, even after controlling for race, poverty, and school characteristics.’

Unfortunately, having a disability is not the only kind of difference victimized by ‘zero-tolerance’ policies. The Civil Rights Projects study supports previous research showing that racial and ethnic minorities are subject to higher levels of suspension, expulsion, and arrest at school. In addition, LBGTQ youth often receive harsher discipline at school. Recent research has shown that LBGTQ youth are 40 percent more likely to receive punishment (Read Advancement Project and the Gay Straight Alliances report on bullying and ‘zero tolerance’).

When these differences intersect, it causes an explosion in risk of suspension. In the worst case, the Civil Rights Project found that Black students with disabilities have a 25% risk of suspension compared to an only 4% risk for white students without disabilities. When you look beyond the national numbers, the problem is even more pronounced. According to the Civil Rights Project’s data, large school districts like Chicago, IL and Henricho, VA, are suspending 70% of Black male students with disabilities.

The good news is that some school leaders are finally starting to respond to the voices of student, parents and other community members by moving away from extreme discipline policies. Places like Maryland, Colorado, Philadelphia, and Chicago are changing their policies to move away from ‘zero tolerance.’ We can only hope that Hunter’s story will inspire more action so that he is one of the last young people to be singled-out at school for being different.