A zero tolerance policy in schools requires administrators to hand down specific and consistent punishment for certain behaviors that occur on campus. The consequences given to students are usually harsh, involving either suspension or expulsion, and it can sometimes be for misconduct issues that are relatively minor. It is an outcome that applies regardless of the circumstances or the reasons for the behavior, including actions taken in self-defense.
The first zero tolerance policies were developed in the 1990s in the United States as a response to school shooting incidents that occurred. Laws like the Gun-Free Schools Act, which passed in 1994, require schools to expel any student who brings a gun to campus. It was at this time when it became popular to become harsh on minor violations under the idea that it could prevent serious crimes.
Schools began to take their own disciplinary policies to the next level after the passage of these laws, require suspension or expulsion for bringing anything that could be deemed a weapon to school – such as a nail clipper. Fighting offenses, including minor scuffles, or even insubordination defined as swearing at a teacher or administrator are part of these policies too.
Does a zero tolerance policy in schools actually work, or does it create a situation where students become more fearful about what might happen to them? There are several pros and cons to review with this approach.
List of the Pros of Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools
1. Zero tolerance policies work to create a safe learning environment.
Proponents say that the use of a zero tolerance policy makes it possible for schools to keep the learning environment safer for students. The reasons why a rule is broken rarely matter, which is why there should not be any exceptions under any circumstances. If there are policies violated, then students should receive a serious consequence for that decision. Taking a harsh action might seem extreme to some, but it can also serve as a deterrent to other kids who might be thinking about taking a similar approach.
2. This type of policy prepares students for the real world.
The reality of the modern legal system is that it takes a zero tolerance approach to sentencing in most situations as well. It doesn’t matter why you broke the law in most situations. Law enforcement is only concerned with the fact that you violated the expectations of society. If you are speeding because you’re running late for work, you’ll probably get a ticket. That delay in receiving the ticket might cause your boss to fire you since you violated company policy too. Even if you can save your employment, there is a good chance that you won’t get paid for the time spent dealing with that situation.
3. It is an approach that helps to reduce favoritism in schools.
Because a zero tolerance policy requires administrators to act in the same way toward any student who violates the rules covered by this approach, then there is a reduction in favoritism present in the school. There are far too many stories of children receiving leniency because they are smart, have parents involved with the district, or have money that can help them to get off the hook. There is no room for misinterpretation because a student either breaks a rule or doesn’t, which means that they either receive a consequence or do not because of the actions taken.
4. Almost anything can be turned into a weapon with intent.
Critics often put zero tolerance policies at schools on blast because there can be some confusion as to what constitutes a weapon. The reality of violence is that almost anything can be turned into something that could harm someone else. Our situation is different today than in the past when you could take a pocketknife to school because you had shop class that day. Rubber bands might seem like a silly item that is non-threatening, but elastic band injuries are fairly common. A family in Naperville, IL even sued the school district there because of an eye injury sustained on campus by one.
It is important to remember that if a student is bringing items to school, there is intent in that action. Zero tolerance policies are based more on the intent to use an item than the actual product. That’s why you can see suspensions sometimes for nail clippers or rubber bands.
5. It reduces the number of drugs that get brought to campus.
Unless your child has asthma and carries an inhaler, most schools have a policy that prevents them from carrying medication at any time. The reasoning of the zero tolerance policy here is that once you start making exceptions to a rule, then you don’t really have one to enforce. In the case of Savana Redding, an eighth-grade honor student in Arizona, there was reason to believe she had given another student a 400mg pill.
Critics will point out that the district went too far in that situation by initiating a strip search to determine if she had more medication on her person. From a drug-only standpoint, students are not doctors. Even medicines like Tylenol or ibuprofen can create potentially hazardous side effects. By having a zero tolerance policy against carrying drugs, it reduces the potential for harm with all students.
6. It is not always easy to determine what the intent of a child might be.
A 6-year-old boy in Ohio received a three-day suspension from school because administrators saw him pretending to use a bow and arrow around other students. The adults in that situation felt like the student was making a threatening gesture around other students. It turned out that the child was pretending to be a Power Ranger. The boy’s mother said that she couldn’t stop him from pretending to be a superhero, which is a true statement. Kids like to use their imagination in inventive and creative ways. Critics would point out that using one’s imagination is a healthy approach to life.
Now take this incident from the perspective of the school. There is a student pretending to use a weapon. Other students might feel threatened by this behavior. It could even be part of a bullying effort, whether the young child realizes it or not. Where one group of parents sees the consequence as being out of control, another will see a measured response that creates a learning experience for the entire family.
7. Zero tolerance policies create clear guidelines to follow.
The presence of a zero tolerance policy sends a clear message to students and families. It removes offenders from the classroom and allows administrators to act quickly with discipline based on school policies. The guidelines of expectations and consequences are clear and communicated to everyone before the start of the school year. It is a fast-acting intervention that projects the messages that ill intent is not tolerated at school for any reason.
One of the primary reasons why there is such resistance to these rules is that parents don’t take the time to read through their guidebooks given to them by the school. It’s the same philosophy that comes with signing a contract without reading the text. You think you know what’s in there, but then feel shocked to know that you agreed to something that you didn’t like in the first place.
8. These policies are continuing to evolve to protect students.
Because of incidents where a piece of paper or even a pointed finger made someone uncomfortable because someone thought it was reminiscent of a gun, numerous school districts are evolving their zero tolerance policies to be directed toward behaviors that are mostly illegal or a major threat to the classroom. That’s why they typically involve guns, drugs, or actions that are sexually threatening – like talking about raping a classmate. The essence of this approach is to provide fair, firm, and consistent discipline that keeps kids safe while communicating that there are consequences that happen when illegal or inappropriate behavior occurs.
9. A majority of parents support zero tolerance policies at schools.
The American Psychological Association reports that parents overwhelmingly support the implementation of a zero tolerance policy. This action ensures that students feel safe because they know that unwanted behaviors or actions are dealt with quickly and in no uncertain terms. It is a method that works to keep schools safer because it limits the opportunities for bullying and encourages students to report the presence of guns, weapons, or drugs that might get brought into the school.
10. Zero tolerance does not apply in most situations to socioeconomic issues.
Zero tolerance policies work best when they work to maintain a safe and disciplined learning environment. Teachers are unable to teach and students cannot learn when there is disruption and chaos in the classroom. These policies help to create a place where everyone can feel protected while they work to better themselves.
Critics rightly point out that zero tolerance policies are ineffective when schools attempt to enforce them for socioeconomic reasons. Kids showing up with a lack of school supplies for the classroom is not an issue that can be fixed with an automatic suspension. Tardiness and unexcused absences have reasons that fall outside of the intent-to-harm spectrum as well, requiring schools to work with students and parents to resolve the underlying issues that cause the behavior in the first place.
List of the Cons of Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools
1. There are a lot of times when common sense isn’t applied to a situation.
A fourth-grader in Florida was threatened with sexual harassment charges in 2015 because he wrote a love letter to one of his classmates. He drew a small picture that said he “loved her,” and then said that she was pretty and cute. The boy went on to say that he liked her hair because it “wasn’t sloppy.” The administrators of the school determined that the note was not wanted and prompted inappropriate teasing from the other kids.
Common sense must be part of a zero tolerance policy, but unfortunately, these rules tend to create an over-reaction by the adults in that situation.
2. It focuses more on classroom disruption than the needs of the child involved.
In a case that spanned more than four years, judges in Maryland upheld the suspension of a 7-year-old boy who was suspended for chewing his breakfast into the shape of a gun and pretending to shoot classmates with it. The incident ultimately hinged on the fact that the student had a “long line of disciplinary problems,” although that fact was not communicated to the parents at the time. As with most cases that involve playacting and young children, the child created classroom disruptions because he was troubled too. He was new to the school, joined the class late, and would often display self-harm behaviors while in class – including banking his head on the walls.
Schools should not be the catch-all solution for every family, but they can be a resource to help kids find the help they need instead of brandishing them as a troublemaker. Zero tolerance policies can make it challenging to access the help that people need.
3. Some zero tolerance policy rules may be discriminatory.
If you have a child who has been disciplined because of a zero tolerance policy, then you might want to speak with an education lawyer for advice on how to prepare for the proceedings. It will be up to you to protect the rights of your child. Attorneys experienced in civil rights and educational law can explain whatever legal options may be available to use, including suing the school district. Some schools may even have these policies applied to behaviors that are directly related to a child’s disability.
4. Educators must be educated about how to enforce these policies accurately.
An 11-year-old boy in Virginia received a 1-year suspension because educators thought that he was carrying a marijuana leaf to school. The sixth-grader was in the district’s gifted-and-talented program. An assistant principal found the leaf in his backpack and initiated disciplinary action. The boy had to be homeschooled and enrolled in the district’s alternative education program and evaluated by a psychiatrist for substance abuse problems.
The leaf was tested three times for marijuana and it was negative each incident. Even though the court dropped the case because the leaf turned out to be from a Japanese maple, the school district determined that it was an “imitation drug,” so the consequence was warranted. Kids have been suspended for bringing bags of oregano to school for the same reason. If someone thinks it is a drug, then that’s enough for a suspension.
5. There is no consistency applied to zero tolerance rules.
Proponents of zero tolerance rules say that the consistency of this reaction is the reason why it is such an effective approach to school discipline. The only problem with that perspective is that it requires human beings to be perfect – and we all know how fallible our species can be. A Delaware third grader is an excellent example of this disadvantage. Her school district suspended her for a year because she brought a weapon to school.
Here’s what happened: the girl’s grandmother sent a birthday cake to the school to celebrate her special day. Grandma included a knife to help cut it. Then the teacher used that knife to cut and serve the cake to the rest of the class… before turning the student in for bringing the weapon to school. In this situation, the expulsion was eventually overturned.
6. Different people have unique interpretations of what a rule requires.
Anthony Ruelas was 15 years old and attending school in Killeen Texas. One of his classmates ended up having an asthma attack in class, and her condition worried him. The teacher was waiting to receive an email from the nurse to determine what should be done. Ruelas swore at the teacher, said that they didn’t have time for an email, and carried the girl to the nurse’s office instead. The school district gave him a two-day suspension because he had refused to follow the directions from his teacher.
Situations like this occur all of the time. Honor student Diane Tran was making straight As and working two jobs to support her siblings, but it also led to unexcused absences. She was arrested for truancy and held for 24 hours for missing school despite her grades. Those charges were eventually dropped.
Zero tolerance policies were created to prevent school shootings because they gave school districts some leverage in sending home students caught with a deadly weapon on campus. Now that these rules can apply to various situations where a perceived threat takes place, more disruptions to the learning environment occur because of their enforcement sometimes.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for this approach in some situations. Students deserve to have a safe place to learn that is relatively free from disruptions. It is also important for us to remember that kids will joke about things all of the time. They will make questionable decisions sometimes because of the way that their brains develop while growing up.
Zero tolerance makes sense when there is an intent to hurt someone else, whether that action occurs with a gun, a nail clipper, or a child’s fists. It may not be the correct approach to take when that intent is missing.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.