Zero tolerance (schools)

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A zero-tolerance policy in schools is a policy of punishing any infraction of a rule, regardless of accidental mistakes, ignorance, or extenuating circumstances. In schools, common zero-tolerance policies concern possession or use of illicit drugs or weapons. Students, and sometimes staff, parents, and other visitors, who possess a banned item for any reason are always (if the policy is followed) to be punished.

These policies are promoted as preventing drug abuse and violence in schools. Critics say zero tolerance in schools have occasionally resulted in punishments which have been criticised as egregiously unfair against students and teachers, especially in schools with poorly written policies. Consequently, these policies are sometimes derided as zero-intelligence policies.[1] Outside school, zero tolerance may be used in general or with reference to a particular category of transgressions, e.g. a zero-tolerance policy against alcohol use.

In the United States and Canada, zero-tolerance policies have been adopted in various schools and other education venues. Zero-tolerance policies in the United States became widespread in 1994, after federal legislation required states to expel any student who brought a firearm to school for one year, or lose all federal funding.[2]

Many people have been critical of zero tolerance policies, claiming they are extremely harsh rules which do not benefit anyone. Also claiming that the rules over-crowd courts and are disproportionately harmful to racial minorities.[3]

Claims made in support[edit]

Supporters of zero-tolerance policies claim that such policies are required to create an appropriate environment (Scaringi, 2008; Noguera, 1995). They also point to examples of persons in authority providing lax discipline in the past, with a resulting breakdown of order in the school (Scaringi, 2001).

Some supporters also argue that the mass publicizing of examples of unfairness serves the schools' purpose by frightening students into conformity instead of galvanizing them into resistance. They point to the millions of student acts and omissions each and every school day, only a small percentage of which prove to be unfairly penalized. (Noguera, 2007)

The policy assumption is that inflexibility is a deterrent because, no matter how or why the rule was broken, the fact that the rule was broken is the basis for the imposition of the penalty. This is intended as a behavior modification strategy: since those at risk know that it may operate unfairly, they may be induced to take even unreasonable steps to avoid breaking the rule. This is a standard policy in rule- and law-based systems around the world on "offenses" as minor as traffic violations to major health and safety legislation for the protection of employees and the environment. (Ghezzi, 2006)

Some[who?] view zero-tolerance policies as a tool to fight corruption (Takyi-Boadu, 2006). Under this argument, if subjective judgment is not allowed, most attempts by the authority person to encourage bribes or other favors in exchange for leniency are clearly visible.

Claims made in criticism[edit]

Critics of zero-tolerance policies frequently refer to cases where minor offenses have resulted in severe punishments. Typical examples include the honor-roll student being expelled from school under a "no weapons" policy while in possession of nail clippers,[4] or for possessing "drugs" like cough drops and dental mouthwash or "weapons" like rubber bands.[2]

A related criticism is that zero-tolerance policies make schools feel like a jail or a prison. Furthermore zero-tolerance policies have been struck down by U.S. courts[5] and by departments of education.[6]

Another criticism is that the zero-tolerance policies have actually caused schools to turn a blind eye to bullying, resulting in them refusing to solve individual cases in an attempt to make their image look better. The zero-tolerance policy also punishes both the attacker and the defender in a fight, even when the attacker was the one who started the fight unprovoked.

A particularly dismaying hypothesis about zero tolerance policies is that they may actually discourage some people from reporting criminal and illegal behavior, for fear of losing relationships, and for many other reasons. That is, ironically, zero tolerance policies may be ineffective in the very purpose for which they were originally designed.[7]

Research evidence[edit]

There is no credible evidence that zero tolerance reduces violence or drug abuse by students (Skiba 2000). Furthermore, school suspension and expulsion result in a number of negative outcomes for both schools and students.[8]

On its face, rigid rules limit the powers of the person doing enforcement and thus should ensure equal treatment for everyone. However, the evidence indicates that minority children are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of zero tolerance (American Bar Association, 2006).

The American Psychological Association concluded that the available evidence does not support the use of zero tolerance policies as defined and implemented, that there is a clear need to modify such policies, and that the policies create a number of unintended negative consequences,[9][10] including making schools "less safe".[11]

Skiba(2014) claims that suspensions and expulsions as a result of the zero tolerance policy of schools have not helped in reducing school disruptions and improve school climate. It has proven to negatively affect student learning.[12]

Martinez (2009) exemplifies that zero tolerance policies are viewed as a quick fix solution for student problems. While this seems like a simple action-reaction type of situation, it often leaves out the mitigating circumstances that are often the minutiae in student incidents. Even civilian judges consider mitigating circumstances before passing judgement or sentencing Meernik, 2003). If zero tolerance fixes were applied in adult courtroom scenarios, they would fundamentally be unjust and unconstitutional due the neglect of the rights of due process and cruel and unusual punishment of the fifth and amendments.

Media attention[edit]

Egregious cases often attract the attention of the international media, and questioning of schools' disproportionate responses to technical transgressions. These cases include students being suspended or expelled for such offences as possession of ibuprofen or Midol (both legal, non-prescription drugs commonly used to treat menstrual cramps and headaches) with permission of the students' parents, keeping pocketknives (small utility knife) in cars, and carrying sharp tools outside of a woodshop classroom (where they are often required materials). In some jurisdictions, zero-tolerance policies have come into conflict with freedom of religion rules already in place allowing students to carry, for example, kirpans.

  • A Sandusky, Ohio high school student was suspended for 90 days and flunked, after school authorities searched him for drugs in September 1999, and found a broken pocketknife. He had used the knife to clean his golfing cleats.[13]
  • After bringing a Cub Scouts dinner knife to school to eat his lunch, a six-year-old boy was ordered by Christina School District to attend an alternative school for students with behavioral problems for nine weeks. After a media uproar, the school board voted unanimously to reduce punishments for kindergartners and first-graders who take weapons to school to a 3-5 day mandatory suspension,[11][14] retaining the original definition of "weapons".[15]
  • A third-grader, also in the Christina School District, was expelled for a year because her grandmother sent a birthday cake, and a knife for cutting the cake, to school. The teacher used the knife to cut the cake, and then reported her to the authorities as having a dangerous weapon. The expulsion was overturned and led to a state law that gave districts the ability to, "on a case-by-case basis, modify the terms of the expulsion."[16]
  • Other cases in the Christina School District include a straight-A student who was ordered to attend "reform school" after a classmate dropped a pocket knife in his lap,[16] and in 2007, when a girl was expelled for using a utility knife to cut paper for a project.[16]
  • Earlier in 2009, an Eagle scout was suspended for three weeks for having an emergency supply kit in his car, that included a pocket knife.
  • A kindergartner was suspended in March 2010 for making a finger gun.[17]
  • A kindergartner was suspended for 10 days in January, 2013 for referring to "shooting" a friend with a Hello Kitty bubble making gun.[18] The suspension was reduced to two days after the parent met with school officials.
  • A second grader was suspended in March 2013 for biting a Pop-Tart into the shape of a mountain, which school officials mistook for a gun.[19][20][21][22][23]

Media attention has proven embarrassing to school officials, and the embarrassment has resulted in changes to state laws as well as to local school policies. One school board member gave this reason for changes his district made to their rigid policy: "We are doing this because we got egg on our face."[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Zero Tolerance is Zero Intelligence". Delaware Liberal. 6 October 2009. 
  2. ^ a b Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY, 4/13/90
  3. ^
  4. ^ Final Report, Bi Partisan Working Group on Youth Violence 106th Congress, February 1996 Zero Tolerance Policy Report, American Bar Association
  5. ^ "Pensacola honor students win zero tolerance drug ruling" article of the AP/Bradenton Herald, Sept. 8, 2002 at archives Sept. 2002 pt. III
  6. ^ Rhode Island Officials Rule School Can't Censor Teen's Yearbook Photo (1/19/2007)
  7. ^ Rowe, Mary and Bendersky, Corinne, "Workplace Justice, Zero Tolerance and Zero Barriers: Getting People to Come Forward in Conflict Management Systems," in Negotiations and Change, From the Workplace to Society, Thomas Kochan and Richard Locke (editors), Cornell University Press, 2002
  8. ^ Russell J. Skiba Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice Policy Research Report #SRS2 August, 2000
  9. ^ Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, December 2008.
  10. ^ Zero Tolerance Policies: no substitute for good judgment Summary of the APA Task Force Report at
  11. ^ a b Nuckols, Ben (13 October 2009). "Delaware board likely to tweak zero-tolerance rule". Associated Press. [dead link]
  12. ^ Skiba, R. J. (2014). The Failure of Zero Tolerance. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 22(4), 27-33.
  13. ^ Petras, Kathryn; Petras, Ross (2003). Unusually Stupid Americans (A compendium of all American Stupidity). New York: Villard Books. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0-9658068-7-1. 
  14. ^ Nuckols, Ben (14 October 2009). "Delaware 1st grader has 45-day suspension lifted". Associated Press. [dead link]
  15. ^ "Christina Board Will Consider Amendment to Student Code of Conduct for Youngest Students" (Press release). Christina School District. 13 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-14. 
  16. ^ a b c Urbina, Ian (12 October 2009). "It’s a Fork, It’s a Spoon, It’s a ... Weapon?". The New York Times. 
  17. ^ McVicar, Brian (March 4, 2010). "Ionia kindergartner suspended for making gun with hand". The Grand Rapids Press (Ionia: Booth Newspapers). Retrieved 11 August 2010. 
  18. ^ DeMarche, Edmund (19 January 2013). "Pennsylvania girl, 5, suspended for threatening to shoot girl with pink toy gun that blows soapy bubbles". FoxNews. 
  19. ^ Capizola, Janeen (March 2, 2013). "7-year-old suspended for biting Pop Tart into gun shape". BizPac Review. Retrieved June 25, 2014. 
  20. ^ "School suspends 7-year-old for shaping breakfast pastry into 'shape of a gun'". Daily Mail (London). March 2, 2013. 
  21. ^ "7-Year-Old Suspended, Teacher Says He Shaped Pastry into Gun". WBFF. March 2013. Retrieved June 25, 2014. 
  22. ^ Mangu-Ward, Katherine (March 1, 2013). "Pop-Tart Pistol?: 7-Year-Old Gets Suspended for Gun-Shaped Pastry". Retrieved June 25, 2014. 
  23. ^ "Josh Welch 7, Suspended For Shaping Pastry Into Gun Shape". MSN News. Retrieved June 25, 2014. 
  24. ^ Urbina, Ian (13 October 2009). "After Uproar on Suspension, District Will Rewrite Rules". The New York Times. 


  • American Bar Association. Zero Tolerance Policy Report, 2001 []
  • Cox, S. & J. Wade. (19980. The Criminal Justice Network: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Martinez, S. (2009). A system gone berserk: How are zero-tolerance policies really affecting schools? Preventing School Failure,53(3), 153-157.
  • Meernik, J. (2003). Victor's justice or the law? The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 47(2), 140-162.
  • Ghezzi, Patti. "Zero tolerance for zero tolerance" Atlanta Constitution, March 20, 2006.
  • Noguera, Pedro A. "Preventing and Producing Violence: A Critical Analysis of Responses to School Violence," Harvard Educational Review, Summer 1995, pp. 189–212.
  • Robinson, M. (2002). Justice Blind? Ideals and Realities of American Criminal Justice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Rowe, Mary and Bendersky, Corinne, "Workplace Justice, Zero Tolerance and Zero Barriers: Getting People to Come Forward in Conflict Management Systems," in Negotiations and Change, From the Workplace to Society, Thomas Kochan and Richard Locke (editors), Cornell University Press, 2002
  • Scaringi, D. "Zero Tolerance Needed for Safe Schools." St. Petersburg (FL) Times, June 24, 2001.
  • Sherman, L., D., Gottfredson, D. MacKenzie, J. Eck, P. Reuter & S. Bushway. (1997). "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising." [1]
  • Snider, Laureen. (2004) "Zero Tolerance Reversed: Constituting the Non-Culpable Subject in Walkerton" in What is a Crime? Defining Criminal Conduct in Contemporary Canadian Society. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, and Montreal: Laval University Press (French translation), 2004: 155-84.
  • Takyi-Boadu, Charles. "On Zero-Tolerance Corruption not Province of Politicians." The Ghanaian Chronicle, March 16, 2006.

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