Should We Have Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance Policies?

Zero tolerance policies seem to be double-edged swords: on one hand, they are meant to rid schools of disruptive behavior, threats and potentially dangerous situations; on the other, they are heavy-handed laws that can go too far when meting out punishment for even the smallest infractions. Is it time for schools to re-evaluate these policies?

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The Birth of Zero Tolerance

It all began nearly 20 years ago, when the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 targeted kids who brought weapons onto campus. That law required states to comply with a mandate to expel students caught with deadly weapons or drugs in schools.

Since then, school districts across the nation have adopted zero-tolerance policies, with harsh punishments dealt out for everything from cursing to disrupting class. Some districts report tens of thousands of suspensions and expulsions within a single school year!

Some say such policies give school officials too much power. Others agree that some of the punishments are too strict for acts that could be viewed as little more than 'stupid adolescent mistakes'. Suspension for offering a classmate Tylenol? Expulsion for possessing blunt scissors such as those used by small children? It can, and has, happened.

'One Size Fits All' Punishment System

Does every situation warrant the same response? Zero tolerance policies tend to ignore the old 'two sides to every story' rule and instead create a sort of 'one size fits all' system. But is that really the way to go?

Ask Lindsey Tanner. Or Lisa Smith. Or Andrew Mikel. These are students who have been victims of zero tolerance policies, having been handed severe sentences for what some would view as minor occurrences. Did they break school rules? Yes. But Tanner gave a fellow classmate an over-the-counter medication. Smith was expelled for possessing a Cherry 7-Up mixed with a few drops of grain alcohol.

And Mikel? He was kicked out of school for half of an academic year for shooting spitballs! Even the president of the American Federation of Teachers has admitted to being 'terribly embarrassed' when she hears some of these stories.

No Tolerance

Parents and other concerned individuals have been speaking out against zero tolerance policies for years...and in many cases, rightfully so.

In 2003 in Duxbury, Massachusetts, for instance, a group of parents formed Concerned Parents Respond after students were led out of the area high school in handcuffs after one teacher reported them smelling like marijuana. That group stated they were 'morally offended' by what school officials had done.

Representative Patrick Williams of Louisiana admitted to USA Today in early December 2011 that zero tolerance, while a needed and useful tool to help keep schools safe, must 'take into account the gray areas that might come up.'

So what, ultimately, should schools do? It's a tough call. If they ease up on punishments and a student who should have been expelled or suspended winds up doing something worse, that school could be held liable. But should students who say a bad word have their academic records tainted by lengthy suspensions?

A first step might be to have every school review zero tolerance policies. Most of these policies do give officials the option to first notify parents or sentence kids to after-school detention before going directly to the harshest punishments. How intolerant might parents be if they learned that a few minutes of bad behavior might have been fixed with a simple note home rather than a damaging six-month expulsion?

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