Zero Tolerance Policy

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Definition from the American Bar Association:
"Zero tolerance" is the phrase that describes America's response to student misbehavior. Zero tolerance means that a school will automatically and severely punish a student for a variety of infractions. While zero tolerance began as a Congressional response to students with guns, gun cases are the smallest category of school discipline cases. Indeed, zero tolerance covers the gamut of student misbehavior, from including "threats" in student fiction to giving aspirin to a classmate. Zero tolerance has become a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools confront. It has redefined students as criminals, with unfortunate consequences.
http://www.abanet.org/crimjust/juvjus/zerotolreport.html

Fact Sheets

What it means for students
  • This applies to ALL students and faculty, regardless of age, race, gender, or prior record of offenses
  • Punishment can range from detention to expulsion, depending on the specific school and what the offense is
  • "Zero tolerance" covers an extremely wide range of offenses, including
    • guns
    • drugs and alcohol
    • threats
    • fights/violence

Unintended Consequences of Zero Tolerance Policies
  • There often is no distinction between offenses, which means that a student who threatens to hit another student on the playground could get the same punishment as a student who brings a weapon to school.
    • This can result in the loss of trust and respect between students and teachers/administrators. An ABA Journal story noted how unfair zero tolerance policies have become. One private attorney in Virginia observed that children are able to understand that there is a difference between being treated equally and being treated fairly. She said, "Kids are not going to respect teachers and administrators who cannot appreciate the difference between a plastic knife and a switch-blade."
    • An Illinois attorney observed, "Schools are confusing equal treatment with equitable treatment. . . . Kids in middle school and high school care most about fairness. When they see two students whose 'offenses' are vastly different being treated exactly the same, that sense of fairness is obliterated and replaced with fear and alienation."
  • Zero Tolerance policies, however unintentionally, often target minority students.
    • By the end of 1999, a study of ten school districts in the country showed that black students, who are already suspended or expelled at higher rates than their peers, will suffer the most under new "zero tolerance" attitudes toward rising school violence...zero tolerance means that black students will be pushed out of the door faster.

Criticism of Zero Tolerance
  • Although few could quarrel with a policy of zero tolerance towards children who misbehave - adults who raise, teach or supervise children should react to misbehavior - their responses should be appropriate to the age, history and circumstances of the child as well as to the nature of the offense." Unfortunately, when it is examined closely, "zero tolerance" turns out to have very little to do with zero tolerance, and everything to do with one-size-fits-all mandatory punishment.

Zero Tolerance Policy in the News