Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | Talking Back | Volume 2, Issue 1

Zero Tolerance Policies

Casey logoVanderham

There are very few people today who are unaware of the violence in schools. As college students we live in a world that is desperate to find prevention methods against violence. That makes this issue important to today's college students, considering the fact that we are the generation that could have been involved and directly effected by a school shooting like Columbine. Is this how we want our school systems to be when our children enroll?

A school is defined as "an institution for teaching and learning". However, today's educational institutions include punishment, violence, and misbehavior. When we find ourselves glued to the television because of another school shooting, obviously something needs to be done about violence in schools. Unfortunately, the solution causes creates more problems.

Schools around the world have recently adopted revolutionary solution and prevention methods. The controversy over school violence prevention is not "yes we should or, "no we shouldn't", because you will probably be hard pressed to find someone who thinks we shouldn't get involved. The debate lies in the method we use to prevent and solve school violence. The zero tolerance policy is one suggestion to implement punishment in schools.

The zero tolerance policy is strict and devises rules for students and faculty alike. It is a policy that doesn't ask questions when a rule is broken which often results in suspension and expulsion. The policy also addresses the possession of weapons, drugs, and alcohol. Many schools have adopted this policy and have observed both positive and negative results.

If the zero tolerance program is installed in the educational system, schools must decide when and how it should be enforced. This is a very complex issue and when open to debate you see three approaches to it. First, advocates of zero tolerance policies concentrate on positive changes in school security, ways of punishment, and change in student behavior. Those who oppose the policies argue that zero tolerance should be eliminated due to its lack of rationale and logic.  Finally, the opposing viewpoint criticizes the zero tolerance policy for being too extreme and inappropriate for schools.

The first group, those who favor the policy, dwell on school improvement due to zero tolerance. One positive change is reinstated safety in schools giving students, parents, teachers, and the community a breath of relief. Advocates of this positive change believe that schools should be a place of learning without safety concerns. Jack McConnell, an education minister from Scotland, commented on the zero tolerance for bullies in Scotland schools, "A school community should be one where pupils are free to learn and realize their potential away from bullying" (Holme & Buie 2001, p.1). The Scotland school district favors the zero tolerance-policy after a 13-year-old girl hung herself as a result of being bullied at school (Holme & Buie 2001, p.1).

Additionally, advocates agree that zero tolerance promotes fair punishment. Angelique Forrester points out "a zero tolerance policy for schools would create the same ground rules and consequences for the whole student body" (p.1).  This fairness eliminates racial, ethnic background, or socioeconomic status that influence the decision to punish (Forrester 1999, p.1). These authors and supporters believe establishing set rules helps teachers and students realize where the boundaries are and clarifying the purpose for punishment. "Draw a line and tell students they may not cross those lines," says Albert Shanker, (1997) the president of American Federation of Teachers (p. 2). He continues, "without tough codes of conduct that were consistently enforced, they [students] would continue doing so" (1997, p. 2).

How are students reacting to this new set of conduct? The Granite City School District has experienced a 50-75% decline in expulsions as a result of zero tolerance policies. Deep down those who promote zero tolerance, including these supporting authors, feel strict rules imply expectations and initiate transformation in student behavior. While the zero tolerance policy had many benefits, others feel it will be detrimental to education.

Those that argue against zero tolerance note that schools punish without reason and consideration of absurd consequences. Those who oppose zero tolerance believe that there is no leniency, logic, or second consideration for individual behavior cases.

John Derbyshire, a National Review author, provides examples of ridiculous punishments due to the lack of logic behind zero tolerance. For instance, a kindergartner from Pittsburgh was disciplined for the plastic ax he wore to school as part of his Halloween costume.  A sixth-grader from Georgia was suspended for possession of a ten-inch Tweety Bird key chain because it was considered to be a weapon under the school's zero tolerance policy (2001, p.1). Another case of ridicule is mentioned in Fred Foldvary's editorial for The Progress Report on-line; a six-year old from Colorado Springs was suspended for possessing organic lemon drops.  Apparently, his schools zero tolerance policy for drugs included this candy (2002). Foldvary mocks and ridicules the school for not only suspending the child but also for calling emergency services for a child who was given a lemon drop (2002). This demonstrates the lack of rationalization in the zero tolerance policy.

The lack of logic in zero tolerance is catalyzed by overreaction and an unnecessary hype for additional security. With recent events in the media like Columbine, there is an understandable demand for heightened security. However, statistics indicate that there is an actual decline in violent school deaths. Stanley Kurts from the National Review Online notes the decrease of shootings from 1993 when there were 44 violent school deaths and 200 news stories on school violence, to 15 violent deaths but 450 news stories about school violence in 2001 (2002).  These facts reveal that reoccurring events in the news will increase the demand for additional security. At this point, we need to use more logic and plan before we react.

There is substantial evidence for people to feel there is no logic to zero tolerance policies. When we are dealing with punishment in schools shouldn't we involve logic? This is the belief of those authors that accuse zero tolerance for being unreasonable.  Two approaches to zero tolerance have been discussed; a third approach increases the complexity behind zero-tolerance.

How far can we go when it comes to punishing students? Is suspension or expulsion too extreme? Many feel these punishments are too harsh and detrimental to a student's future. The student leader of Generation Y comments on the effects of suspension and expulsion, "You don't learn. You fall behind. You get a negative attitude about school" (Della Piana, Gordon, Keleher 2001). It is ironic that teachers could be hurting the future of their students when helping them is their true goal. This is why so much consideration goes into punishment policies.

Opponents of zero tolerance believe there are alternative and less drastic solutions, especially when it comes to minor "innocent schoolyard shenanigans" (Shuster 2001, p.1).  Karen Slick, an Ontario lawyer and writer states, "The Law does not concern itself with trifles" (Shuster 2001, p.2). Valuable learning and instruction time is sacrificed for disciplining minor offenses.

Many schools that have adopted a zero tolerance policy also rely on the GFSA (Gun-Free School Act). This act requires schools to modify the rules for each incident. Under this policy there is a one-year mandatory expulsion for any public school student who brings a "weapon" to school (Della Piana, Gordon, Keleher 2001, p.1). Although GFSA specifically defines a weapon, schools have expanded on the list. Rhode Island State Law added "realistic replicas of firearms." Similarly, the Providence Zero-Tolerance Policy added many other "weapons" including blackjacks, studded bracelets, brass knuckles, and "any object which, by virtue of its shape or design, gives the appearance of any of the above [weapons]" (Della Piana, Gordon, Keleher 2001, p.3).

Zero tolerance can limit misbehavior in the present but it can hurt students' future. "Suspension and expulsion have serious effects on the life chances of students. Those who are already performing poorly in school are the most likely to be suspended, although they are the very students who can least afford to miss class" (Della Piana, Gordon, Keleher 2001, p.7). While preventing education is not the intention of zero tolerance, it has become a negative side effect.

The decision to implement the zero tolerance policy in schools is not a simple yes or no answer. The policy touches many aspects like equality, justice, seriousness, and logic. This complex issue has many approaches to it, which accompany many different points of view. Regardless of the conflicting opinions, everyone involved in education agree that it is time that we find and answer to change the future of school security. It is time that we restore safety and hope in order to comfort and inspire students. Could you be that teacher that has to punish a student? Would you want zero tolerance to influence your decision? How will you help the future "institutes for teaching and learning?"