Zero Tolerance Policies
This article presents an overview of zero tolerance policies in U.S. public schools and how such policies have become controversial. Zero tolerance began as a U.S. Customs Service policy in the 1980s, and was eventually borrowed by schools to address increasing violence among students. One catalyst for zero tolerance was the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. This article discusses how zero tolerance delivers the same severe punishments to all students—no matter how minor or severe the misbehavior. Because of zero tolerance policies, students have been arrested or expelled for actions as simple as giving a friend some Tylenol or bringing a knife in a lunch box. The article also discusses the history of zero tolerance policies, the views of those who support and oppose zero tolerance, and incidents that have occurred as a result. Ways to address the shortcomings of a zero tolerance policy are suggested.
Keywords Alternative Schools; Columbine High School; Discipline Policy; Expulsion; Gangs; Gun-Free Schools Act; Gun Violence; Intervention; School Violence; Suspension; U.S. Customs Service Policy; Youth Force Coalition
School Safety: Zero Tolerance Policies
Zero tolerance as a school discipline policy is defined as one in which "one offense leads to automatic suspension or expulsion" (Merrow, 2004, p. 1). It grew from the policies executed by the federal and state drug enforcement agencies in the early 1980s. By 1988, these policies caught the attention of the nation, and U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese permitted customs agents to seize cars, boats, and passports of individuals crossing into American soil with any amount of illegal drugs (Hennault, as cited in Webb & Kritsonis, 2006, p. 2). Interestingly, the U.S. Customs Service gradually eliminated this practice "because of the controversy it created and because the ACLU was filing lawsuits against the agency" (Verdugo & Glenn, 2002, p. 5). Despite the controversy involving the U.S. Customs Service's zero tolerance policies, they began to be adopted by schools in response to the Columbine shootings as well as other violent incidents in schools during the 1990s (Peebles-Wilkins, 2005, p. 2). In 1989, California, New York, and Kentucky school districts adopted zero tolerance policies in response to the rash of school violence during this time period. Their policies "mandated expulsion for drugs, fighting, and gang-related activity." By 1993, most school districts across the country had followed their example, adopting their own zero tolerance policies. These latter policies included automatic expulsion for the possession of drugs, the possession of weapons, smoking, and school disruption (Skiba, 2000, p. 2). Soon after, the Clinton administration passed the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 (Skiba, 2000, p. 2). As a result, zero tolerance policies evolved into an idea both popular and controversial with parents, school administrators, and the communities (American Psychological Association, 2006, p. 16).
Why have zero-tolerance policies been so controversial? The answer lies in the way school districts handle varying degrees of student infractions. For example, some zero tolerance policies require that administrators contact the police in addition to expelling the student. Under such a policy, "a gun, a box cutter, a plastic fast-food fork, a fistfight, and a hostile shove in the hallway are equally serious offenses" (Merrow, 2004, p. 1). Each student who breaks a rule is punished in the same manner—no matter how small or how serious the infraction. Other offenses include the following:
• Possession, selling, or using of drugs
• Possession of weapons
• Sexual harassment
• Sexual or aggravated assault
• Threats of violence
• Violent threats towards a teacher or swearing at a teacher
Zero-tolerance policies are designed to prevent such behavior and foster a safe school environment. Any violations of the policy bring about immediate expulsion or suspension (Peebles-Wilkins, 2005, p. 3). The goal is to demonstrate to students that all violations, no matter how minor or severe are punished in the same manner (Skiba, 2000, p. 2). In order to enforce such policies, many schools utilize metal detectors, video cameras, and employ full-time school police (Webb & Kritsonis, 2006, p. 3).
In general, the courts support reasonable zero-tolerance polices that are designed to improve school safety (Stader, 2004). One high profile case involved six students who participated in a fight at a high school football game in Decatur, Illinois. The school district expelled the six students for two years, stating that they were engaged in gang-like activities and violence. Political pressure and national publicity influenced the school board to lessen the sentence to two semesters and offered the students the opportunity to attend an alternative school. In response, the students appealed to the court system in order to overturn the school board's decision. According to the students, they had "been deprived of procedural due process [and] subjected to racial discrimination…" (Stader, 2004, p. 63). They also claimed that they were victims of racial discrimination and that the district's policy on "gang-like activity" was vague and therefore should be void. The Seventh Circuit rejected the students' claims, ruling that the students had "received adequate due process." The courts also ruled that there was no evidence the students had been treated unfairly because of race. Therefore, "the provisions of the district's discipline policy dealing with gangs were constitutionally sound" (Stader, 2004, p. 63).
Despite the support of the legal system, zero tolerance policies have continued to be attacked by those who argue that "in a desire to be tough, no-nonsense, and scrupulously equal in punishment, schools have sacrificed measured and proportional responses for mechanical, non-discretionary decision making" (Fries & DeMitchell, 2007, p. 214). Although such policies enable schools to create and foster a safe environment for students, teachers, and staff, they also create "obstacles for equal opportunity for all students" (Fries & DeMitchell, 2007, p. 214). According to Fries and DeMitchell (2007), treating all students with the same rigid standards does not always result in fairness. It is important for the punishment to fit the crime. In many cases, it is up to the teacher to identify, intervene, and determine if the student who broke the rule should be sent to an administrator to receive punishment (p. 216). In essence, the teacher must decide which problems should be handled in the classroom, and which problems should be ignored (p. 217).
There have been an abundance of court cases involving students who were severely punished for relatively minor offenses. According to Skiba (2000), in 1999, a 15-year- old sophomore student in Atlanta, Georgia was caught with an unloaded gun in his bookbag. He was permanently expelled from the school district (p. 3). In February 1999, a Glendale, Arizona seventh-grader built a home-made rocket and brought it to school. School officials determined that the rocket was a weapon and suspended the student for the remainder of the term. After this incident, the student "was invited as a special guest to Space Adventures' Annual Rocketry Workshop in Washington, DC" (Skiba, 2000, p. 4).
In Texas, a 12-year-old boy was found with a three-inch pocket knife in his coat. It was the pocket knife he had taken to his last Boy Scout meeting. His mother had made him put on the jacket since it was a chilly morning. When the boy discovered the pocket knife, he wasn't sure what he should do. After speaking with his friend about the matter, he put the knife in his locker. The friend turned him in. After lunch, the police arrested him and transported him to a juvenile detention center without notifying his parents. The school expelled the student for 45 days and placed him in an alternative school for juvenile offenders (Axtman, 2005, p. 1).
Webb and Kritsonis (2006) mention several cases concerning zero tolerance that went too far. For example, two fifth-graders in Virginia were accused of putting soap in their teacher's water. Because of their alleged actions, they were charged with a felony (Goodman, as cited in Webb & Kritsonis, 2006, p. 4). Jesse Jackson reported that an eleven- year-old student living in South Carolina was arrested one afternoon because she had brought a knife to school in her lunch box...
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