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Discipline & Safety        < Previous        Next >


Zero Tolerance Policies


Q. Of course we want children to behave well in school, toward each other and toward teachers. Of course we don't want any violent episodes, bullying or threats. But hasn't this push toward "zero tolerance" of breaking rules or varying from standard behavior gone over the edge into absurdity, in some cases? What's to be done?


In 2005, the 12-year-old son of Eddie Evans of Houston - a First Class Boy Scout, church youth leader, and winner of an outstanding student award -- left the house in shirt sleeves to meet the schoolbus. His mother called him back to put on a jacket because it was cool out.


Later that morning, he discovered that the three-inch pocketknife he had taken to his last Boy Scout meeting was still inside his coat. Having a knife in school was clearly against the school's zero-tolerance policy. Unsure what to do, he consulted a friend before putting the knife in his locker. The friend turned him in.


Soon thereafter, police arrested him and took him to a juvenile-detention center without contacting his parents. He was expelled for 45 days and had to go to an alternative school for juvenile offenders. He was thinking of killing himself - even though everybody knew it was an honest mistake, not a threat to anybody.


Because of outrageous abuses like that, the zero tolerance policies put in place in many schools in the 1990s are now slowly being dismantled by concerned state legislatures. They know that government schools lose a lot of credibility when routine bullying and teasing is allowed to go on, and yet honor students have things like this happen to them.


The concept of "zero tolerance" for bad behavior, which results in severe punishment for major and minor incidents alike, stems from 1980s federal drug enforcement policies. It took shape as an educational fad through the funding mechanism of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Some say schools in many localities have over-used grant monies to put in place zero tolerance policies that have since descended into excessive use of isolation, removal from class, suspensions, and disciplinary referrals to juvenile justice authorities for mild infractions in schools.


Then there's the total silliness associated with the rigid concept: in spring 2008, Zion-Benton Township High in Illinois suspended 11 students for seven days after one dressed up in a gorilla costume and chased 10 wearing banana costumes through the school. Yes, that was disruptive - but seven days' suspension? Talk about monkey business. . . .


After the murders at Columbine and other schools, the public became aware of weapons in backpacks and other truly dangerous things going on in government schools. They demanded safety precautions. But in some ways, the overreaction has been even worse: kids expelled for having nail clippers (weapons), Midol (drugs), mouthwash (alcohol), or for disruptive behavior (blowing your nose one too many times in class).


Opponents of zero tolerance policies say it's not that they don't want schools to be safe for all kids. It's just that the rigid policies so often in place in schools don't take into account human behavior, which is much more fluid and unpredictable. Zero tolerance policies also block the good judgment of educators on the scene.


The policies tend to criminalize children's behavior and cast aspersions on them as being threatening and malevolent - proven guilty when they, of all humans, should be assumed to be innocent.


Here's an article about what's wrong with zero tolerance policies:


For more stories of abuses of zero tolerance policies, see, and


Homework: There's an excellent, federally-funded approach to school safety that avoids the pitfalls of overzealous zero tolerance policies, developed by professors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Indiana:


By Susan Darst Williams Discipline & Safety 07 2008



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