As a result of narrowly defined zero tolerance policies there has
been an abundant amount of suspensions and expulsions on minor behavior
infractions. In other words
the punishment did not always fit the crime.
The question remains do zero tolerance policies actually deter
school crime and violence and improve safety?
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says that no
evidence exists that proves that zero-tolerance laws lower school crime
rates nationwide (Education Reporter, 1997, May).
In fact, after four years of implementation, the NCES found that
schools that use zero-tolerance policies are still less safe than those
are without such policies are (Peterson & Skiba, 1999, January).
A fourteen-year-old girl brings a twenty-ounce bottle of Cherry 7Up
with a few drops of grain alcohol in it.
A ten-year-old year girl brings a small knife in her lunch box to
cut her apple. A
seven-year-old boy brings his grandfather’s watch for show and tell that
had a one-inch pocketknife attached to it. A twelve-year-old student shared her inhaler with a student
suffering an asthma attack on the bus.
A six-year-old boy kissed a female classmate after she asked him
to. All of these students
received disciplinary action under zero tolerance policies. Did these students have to suffer harsh penalties, ranging
from suspension to expulsion, even though some were seemingly harmless
The reality is that the interpretation of a zero tolerance policy
has become narrowly defined. Instead
of reviewing discipline infractions on a case-by-case basis, some
administrators have declined to exercise this discretion (Peterson &
Skiba, 1999, January). Inconsistencies
exist on how zero tolerance policies are applied from district to district
and state to state. Zero tolerance policies punish an offense to the
severest extent no matter how minor the offense.
Many of the policies have been attacked as inflexible, harsh and
lacking in common sense (Cauchon, 1999, April).
We agree. Many site
administrators feel that they have no choice based upon the direction of
the local school boards; other administrators fear lawsuits stemming from
not treating all students the same in discipline issues.
Zero tolerance policies were intended to address specific problems
associated with school safety and discipline (McAndrews, 2001, March).
These policies were enacted to combat the seemingly overwhelming increase
in school violence during the 1990s (McAndrews, 2001, March).
These policies and rules were the response to “The Gun Free
Schools Act” passed by Congress in 1994.
States were at risk of losing federal funds if zero tolerance
legislation was not passed. This
law mandates an expulsion of one calendar year for possession of weapon
and referral of students who violate the law to the criminal or juvenile
justice system (Peterson & Skiba, 1999, January). It also provides
that the chief administrative officer of each local school district on a
case-by-case basis may modify the one-year expulsions (Peterson &
Skiba, 1999, January).
Does this mean that the zero tolerance policies cannot be
effective? Not necessarily.
Zero tolerance simply means that all misbehavior will have some
sanction. It doesn’t mean
you bring the maximum punishment for every transgression (Cauchon, 1999,
April). It is imperative that
board policy, on zero tolerance, includes flexibility, discretion, and
common sense. The policy
should allow officials to consider the special circumstances of a
violation, such as:
The age of
ability of the offender to comprehend the policy.
of the offender.
of the transgression on other students.
disciplinary record of the offender (McAndrews, 2001, March).
Defining these characteristics in board policy will provide site administrators with the power to ensure that each infraction/student is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
(2002, February). News: Shifting adult education.
Association for California School Administrators.
Burlingame, CA: ACSA Online.
on February 18, 2002.
Department of Education.
(2002). Handbook of education information: Fact Book.
Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education Online.
on February 18, 2002.
Budget Summary. (2002-2003). Improving
Development System. 55-60.
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State University, Sacramento
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
College of Education
Updated: June 24, 2002