Should Educators Tolerate Zero Tolerance?

Creating a learning environment that is conducive to learning is a necessity for all schools. Today's youth needs assurance that their classrooms will be safe places. Rules and policies are put in place to create a code of conduct for learners; those who violate that code face consequences, of course. During the last 20 years, Zero Tolerance has been a policy in use by schools throughout the nation. The theories behind Zero Tolerance seem to be rational enough to apply to real life, but recently, more voices are raising concern about how effective such a strict policy is.

Students challenge teachers daily with discipline issues. Misbehaviors and criminal acts affect the classroom in a multitude of ways. Kids violate the dress code. Some use prohibited cell phones. Others talk out of turn. And the rest, well, their pockets may be filled with contraband: knives, guns, drugs. As the media continues to sensationalize school violence, it's no wonder why parents, students, and all other school stakeholders want a policy that will help keep kids safe. With Zero Tolerance in effect, clear-cut consequences follow students' actions that disrupt the learning environment.

Consistency is one of the appealing factors of Zero Tolerance. For those who commit offense X, they will receive discipline measure Y. In theory, that seems reasonable. Students will know the consequences that come from their actions before they even commit the actions. The consequences stemming from Zero Tolerance should be a deterrent for bad behavior. For example, if a student were to bring a hunting knife onto the school property, then the policy of the school would spell out his punishment. Perhaps the consequence for this offense would be a week-long suspension. All students at that school would face the same consequence for the same offense; thus, consistency in disciplinary measures would be achieved. Again, that seems reasonable. The problem, however, can be the umbrella-terminology written into the policy, making Zero Tolerance affect students detrimentally.

With consistency in place, there is no room for considering mitigating circumstances or the situation's social context. In one case, a 10-year-old girl was suspended from school for having a knife. Although this seems like a reasonable suspension, upon closer examination, we see that the knife had been placed inside of her lunchbox by her very own mother who thought nothing other than her daughter being able to properly eat her food. A knife could be used in an act of violence. There is no doubt about that, but we need to think about this particular situation and how the mother's negligence will affect the child's education and perception of school and the caring adults within it.

Countless anecdotes exist for reasons why students get suspended. Zero Tolerance is being used as a catch-all for all kinds of issues: Hello Kitty bubble guns, games of cops and robbers, kids' stuff; however, parents agree that kids need to be held accountable for their actions. This helps to fortify the consistency of the policy, but the policy is to punish. When a boy takes a call from his mother, the first call in the last 30 days as she is on deployment in Iraq, he faces the consequences laid out for him in the Zero Tolerance policy. Another kid may have used his phone to make a drug deal, and this boy only wanted to speak to his mother. Both would face the same punishment.

When we look at the data compiled during the last 20 years—and schools have failed time and time again to keep consistent and reliable data—we see that a lot of kids are getting suspended or expelled from school. That data is there. Studies continue to show that suspensions may do more harm than good. That's understandable for many reasons. Being away from school can keep one from learning, forcing him/her farther behind classmates. Sometimes kids choose to turn to the streets for their education. In a report published by American Psychologist, it was found that “in the long term, school suspension and expulsion are moderately associated with a higher likelihood of school dropout and failure to graduate on time." If this is the case, Zero Tolerance is having drastic effects on our society.

Where Zero Tolerance is in place, schools overall are failing to document useful data in a way that follows specific standards. Given what we know about issues that find their ways into our classrooms, be it with learning disabilities, home difficulties, race relations, gender issues, or favorite students, everyone may benefit from Zero Tolerance policy revisions. More groups are advocating for restorative-justice programs in which students learn from their mistakes through talking out their problems with those they can trust among school faculty. Students are going to misbehave in one way or another. We have to keep in mind their developmental levels and how their futures can be greatly impacted by one mistake.