You know you’re having a bad day when CNN arrives at school. But it isn’t just an act of school violence that may result in media scrutiny. It may be a student disciplinary suspension resulting from a district’s position of "zero tolerance." Bad day? Indeed.
Do these events sound familiar?
All occurred under the philosophy of zero tolerance without consideration of mitigating factors. So why has zero tolerance suddenly become a hot button issue? When did the term begin to impact the educational system? Where did it al begin?
During the Reagan presidential administration of the 1980’s, the term zero tolerance became a slogan and part of the national campaign in the war on drug trafficking and substance abuse. The term was meant to imply that we, as a national public, would not tolerate the sale, use, or possession of illegal drugs and those participating in these activities would face a judicial system offering little latitude in terms of prosecution and/or sentencing. In fact, public sentiment and the courts espoused the idea that when drug couriers were apprehended, they would be given the maximum sentence allowed under the law.
Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 requiring any state receiving federal funds to suspend or expel, for at least one calendar year, any student who brought a firearm to school. Though the law allowed a district’s chief administrative officer to modify the discipline on a case by case basis, the perception among educators was that a definitive line had been drawn to address difficult issue of school violence.
Over the last several years this same term - zero tolerance - has now become part of the vernacular with educators and the public related to a variety of behavioral offenses. It is most commonly associated within a student code of conduct addressing issues such as weapons, sexual harassment, drug possession or distribution, etc. Within the proper context, it appropriately communicates a strong message to school communities about what will and will not be allowed on a school campus.
Perhaps the answer lies in how the term has been used. Zero tolerance for violent behavior and criminal acts in schools has always been the standard. No school or educational institution has ever recognized these types of behaviors as acceptable, and framed in this manner, zero tolerance makes perfect sense. However, zero tolerance has now become attached to the discipline.
We would suggest zero tolerance not be eliminated, rather school districts rethink how the term is applied and communicated to the public. Suggestions on how to do so include:
It is easy to adopt terminology that sounds good only to determine later that a clear understanding of intent was not communicated or the application of the strategy was misguided. While zero tolerance has a place in the school vernacular, it needs to be applied judiciously. With a thoughtful explanation to staff, students and parents, help them understand the original intent of the term, and use it only when it makes sense to do so.