Does the Zero Tolerance Policy Work in Schools?

Two teenage boys (14-15) in hoods stealing items from school girl's bag (12-13)
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It's a question parents and professionals across the nation are asking: Does zero tolerance work in schools? Zero tolerance began as law calling for expulsion for bringing a gun onto school property. However, it's quickly morphed into a policy that deals with bullying, drugs, alcohol, and any act of violence, be it physical, verbal, or attitudinal.

In some school districts, zero tolerance has slowly become synonymous with "we don't want to put up with any sort of nonsense." Such policies impose severe consequences for violations, and, in some cases, this is doing more harm than good.

1. Zero Tolerance Can Hurt the Victim of Bullying

Consider this scenario: A child has been bullied for quite some time. So far, the bullying has taken the form of humiliation and verbal abuse, but today it gets physical, and his tormentors attack the child. He fights back to get away.

The teacher takes the students to the principal who suspends or expels them, including the victim.

Under a zero-tolerance policy, a school official has no flexibility to consider the circumstances because physical violence is unacceptable across the board.

2. It Can Take Away a Classroom Teacher's Autonomy to Settle Minor Incidents and Prevent Bullying

Consider this: A kindergarten class is having free play. In the course of play, a little boy says to another, "I'm going to kill you." The teacher would really like to take the opportunity to use this as a teaching moment. She could talk to the students about what words mean, how some phrases can't be used, even in jest, and how singling out one person can be considered bullying.

But under the zero-tolerance policy, she is required to report the incident to the administrator. The administrator then deals with the child as though he genuinely made a death threat.

3. Zero Tolerance Policies Can Be Discriminatory to Students With Special Needs

Students with behavioral and emotional disabilities are often disciplined under these policies. Under special education law, each case needs to be dealt with individually and with flexibility, if the incident is related to the student's disability. Those flexible solutions aren't always helpful. A student who needs a routine to function or come from a rough home will not benefit from suspension or expulsion.

For example, when I first began teaching, I worked in a classroom for children with behavioral impairments. One of our students who came from a very abusive, neglectful home, was suspended one morning for threatening another teacher. To our surprise, he was back in his seat after lunch, having snuck back into school because it was the safer option.

4. Zero Tolerance Policies Don't Take Age Into Account.

District-wide policies require a curious kindergartener to be treated the same way as an older student determined to bully or cause harm.

5. Zero Tolerance Policies Can Punish the Well-Intended.

A real-life scenario from Longmont, Colorado demonstrates this point: Fifth-grader Shannon Coslet's mother packed a knife in her lunchbox with which Shannon could cut her apple. Understanding that knives were against the rules, Shannon turned the knife into a teacher, was praised for doing the right thing, and then expelled her under the zero-tolerance policy because she was in possession of a weapon.