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School Zero Tolerance Policies

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					"Zero tolerance" first appeared in the 1980s, a time when "getting tough" was widely
accepted as the answer to every social problem. It first was used by the United States
Customs Agency for a program aimed at drug smugglers. That program ended in
failure, but the idea of zero tolerance lived on. "Zero tolerance" just sounds so tough,
so precise, so easy, that it inevitably was picked up by state and local politicians,
school boards, and school administrators as a simple way to make the public feel safe.
When Congress enacted the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, "zero tolerance" enjoyed
a substantial boost in popularity. The law requires students who bring dangerous
weapons to school to be expelled for one year, but most schools went further, adding
drugs, alcohol, and fighting to the list of infractions that brought automatic suspension
or expulsion. Many added disruptive behavior, swearing, insubordination, or violation
of dress codes as well. Effectiveness of Zero Tolerance Despite the widespread use of
zero tolerance policies for many years, there is almost no data on its effectiveness.
Evaluations by school administrators are largely positive, but wholly subjective.
While this certainly is evidence that school administrators like zero tolerance policies,
there is no data demonstrating positive behavioral change among the students in their
schools. School administrators like zero tolerance because it makes their lives easier.
"One size fits all" discipline is easy to dispense, and if parents complain that a
punishment is too severe, administrators can claim that school policy "ties their
hands," leaving them no choice. This makes it possible for them to suspend
"troublesome" children 鈥?those whose offenses are minor but frequent 鈥?and keep
them out of school for extended periods of time. It also makes it unnecessary for those
administrators to implement more effective but more challenging policies designed to
increase positive behavior. Abuse of Zero Tolerance Everybody has heard of zero
tolerance rules applied in ways that are patently absurd. A fifth grade girl from
Delaware was suspended for forty-five days because her mother sent her to class with
a birthday cake, and included a knife to cut it in the box. A twelfth grade girl in
Colorado was suspended because she left a wooden replica of a rifle, used for drill
team practice, in the back seat of her car in the school parking lot. A five-year-old
Pennsylvania boy was suspended for wearing a plastic ax as part of his Halloween
fireman's costume. A sixth grader from Washington was expelled when a water pistol
fell out of his backpack, and only readmitted when his family brought legal action
against the school district. Many assume that severe punishments of such trivial
infractions are rare, but numerous examples continue to accumulate from everywhere
zero tolerance policies are in force. The essential problem is that no attempt is made
to distinguish trivial infractions from serious misbehavior. A water pistol is the same
as a loaded revolver, aspirin is the same as cocaine, and a push in the hallway is the
same as a vicious assault. Some claim that zero tolerance prevents administrators
from showing favoritism and, indeed, there are many instances of "good kids" being
suspended or expelled for relatively minor mistakes. Nevertheless, there is plenty of
data to show that school administrators are significantly more likely to suspend
students from poor families than from rich families, and significantly more likely to
suspend African-American students than those of European ancestry. This may arise
less from class or racial discrimination than from a belief that poor and minority
families are less likely to register complaints with the school board 鈥?or hire
attorneys to defend their children's rights. Alternatives to Zero Tolerance Clearly, it is
time to return to policies in which punishments are proportional to the misdeeds they
punish. If school boards are unwilling to trust disciplinary decisions to individual
administrators, they can require consultation with school psychologists, counselors, or
social workers. If students or their parents believe improper decisions have been made,
they should have access to due process, in keeping with long standing concepts of
justice. More important, schools must implement programs that reduce the need for
punishment by training teachers to improve their classroom management skills and
find alternatives to reporting all student misbehavior to administration. Schools must
incorporate anger management and conflict resolution into their curricula, and
introduce programs to combat bullying and promote cross-cultural understanding.
When schools model social values like equity and justice, graduates carry those
values out into the wider society. When zero tolerance policies prevail, transmitting
those values becomes impossible.
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