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Dana Heitner, 19, is the kind of kid you'd be proud to have: a straight A student, an Eagle scout, a gifted artist and all-around nice guy. But in fall 1999, when he was a senior at Madeira High School outside Cincinnati, he made a misstep -- at least school officials felt he did.
It was the fall semester, and his girlfriend was running for student body president. Heitner made a campaign poster for her, a funny one, he thought, parodying the movie Speed. He put it up on the door of a stall in the boys' rest room. It said that a bomb had been placed in the toilet and was set to go off if the weight on the toilet seat went below 50 pounds. The only way to stop it, the poster said, was to "scream as loud as you can that you will vote for [his girlfriend] in the coming election."
When school officials saw the clearly satiric poster, they thought it could be perceived as threatening, and because the district had a zero-tolerance policy that mandated automatic suspension for making threats, Heitner was suspended for ten days. Those days coincided with some important exams. As a result, his first-quarter grades -- the last ones to be sent off to many of the colleges he was applying to -- included a D in calculus, which, since he planned to major in engineering, was highly problematic. Heitner still graduated as valedictorian, but he was not accepted at the University of California at Berkeley, his first-choice school. Now a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, Heitner questions the wisdom of zero tolerance. "These policies hurt students," he says.
Dana Heitner embodies two truths about teenagers. The first, the one that tends to surprise, is that in most ways that can be measured, today's teenagers are doing extremely well. Juvenile crime rates have dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. In 1981, teenagers committed serious crimes at a rate of 40 per 1,000 kids, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. By 1998, that figure had dropped to below 30 per 1,000. As a group, teenagers are smoking and drinking less than their parents did at their age. Between 1974 and 1994 (the latest dates for which figures are available), smoking among kids ages 12 to 17 dropped by 60 percent, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Between 1979 and 1998, alcohol consumption among that age group dropped by more than 62 percent.
And they're good in a host of other ways as well. According to the Points of Light Foundation, a volunteer organization in Washington, D.C., some 59 percent of teenagers volunteer more than 3.5 hours per week (as compared to 16 percent of baby boomers when they were in high school). On IQ tests, they score on average seven points higher than their parents and 14 points higher than their grandparents, and today the highest percentage of high-school students ever -- more than 63 percent -- is going to college. It's also true that the best high-school students are expected to take far more difficult classes than their parents did, and that many kids do extremely well (last year, Harvard University rejected 1,000 high-school valedictorians). Teenagers today are also more accepting of ethnic differences, with American Demographics reporting that today's teens are "the least prejudiced about race" compared to previous generations. They have the lowest teen-pregnancy rate of the last 60 years, a 20 percent drop just in the last decade, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
But the second truth Heitner demonstrates is that our society has failed to grasp just how good our kids are. More and more, we're treating them as if they're out of control. We've cracked down in small ways -- requiring school uniforms, raising the driver's-license age in many states, passing restrictive curfew laws -- and in large ways by instituting zero-tolerance policies for minor offenses at school, and trying and sentencing kids as adults.
The zero-tolerance policies grew out of an understandable impulse: to try to prevent tragic school shootings like those at Littleton, Colorado, and elsewhere. School boards became intent on intervening before kids opened fire, and so they instituted policies mandating suspension or expulsion for a wide array of misbehaviors, such as making threats, bringing things on campus that could be used as weapons, or using drugs or alcohol at school-related, off-campus events.
Some who advocate these policies say they are working in ways that are impossible to measure. "Schools are safe places for kids, and they're becoming safer every year," says Bill Modzeleski, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug Free Schools program. "Part of the reason is that the procedures we've adopted are working."
But there is a dark side to the new rules: They've caused a lot of anguish for scores of ordinary, pretty good kids and their families. The stories often seem ludicrous. Last May, Lindsay Brown, an 18-year-old Fort Myers, Florida, honors student and National Merit Scholar, was kept from attending her graduation after a school official noticed a table knife on the floor of her car, which was parked on campus. She explained that it must have fallen out when she was moving, but school officials would not make exceptions.
Students sharing drugs such as Midol and aspirin have been suspended, as have kids carrying such dangerous "weapons" as paper clips, nail files and scissors. Modzeleski believes zero tolerance is "most often reserved for the most serious offenses," but acknowledges that "fine-tuning is needed" on some programs. In the meantime, many school authorities find themselves in an awkwardly hypocritical position: At the same time that they're trying to teach kids to be tolerant of others, they're proudly touting zero tolerance for the smallest slip-ups.
People who study kids all have theories about why we're unable to see that kids are actually doing pretty well. Some blame the media for perpetuating misconceptions. A recent report by the Public Health Institute's Berkeley Media Studies Group, in California, cited research showing that in that state, in 1993 "nearly seven in ten news stories on violence involved youth, while youth arrests made up only fourteen percent of arrests for violent crimes that year." The group cited another study that found "more than half of TV news stories concerning children or youth involved violence, while only two percent of young people were either victims of violence or violent offenders that year."
But perhaps the main reason we've cracked down on kids is a sort of "do something, anything" attitude on the part of policy-makers. We have no idea if zero-tolerance policies will work, but at least legislators can't be accused of not acting. It's much harder to legislate solutions to the real problems kids face. In 1998, the latest year for which statistics are available, more than 10,000 people between the ages of 15 and 24 died in automobile accidents. Another 4,000 killed themselves. Only a handful -- still too many -- died in school shooting sprees.
Nevertheless, legislators, under intense pressure to act, have drastically altered public policy toward teenagers in the wake of rare incidents of school violence. Modzeleski sees the policies as necessary, believing that excesses can be corrected, but that it's important for kids to feel safe at school right now. "The flip side of all these incidences of supposed overreaction," he says, "is that one kid's fun is another kid's hardship. Something that seems very minor may end up robbing kids of important learning time."
If the get-tough mind-set has created problems for elite students like Dana Heitner, it has been even harder on those not at the top. A report last year by Harvard's Civil Rights Project and the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based legal-action group, concluded that in many cases zero-tolerance policies "defy common sense," and that "children in kindergarten through twelfth grade receive harsh punishments, often for minor infractions that pose no threat to safety." Furthermore, the report noted, "African-American, Latino and disabled children bear the brunt of the consequences," because they represent a disproportionate 32 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
In the end, says Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, we need to stop and analyze whether the policies we're instituting are the best way to invest in our children. "When the baby boom kids came along, the nation stopped and said, 'Oh, no, we've got a lot of kids coming along. We'd better build schools.' Now we're saying, 'Oh, no, we've got a lot of kids coming along. We'd better build prisons.'" --Sue Horton
Sue Horton was supported in her research for this report by the University of Maryland's Journalism Fellowships in Child and Family Policy, where she was a Foundation for Child Development Fellow.