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Zero Tolerance

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Zero Tolerance

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Zero Tolerance - What does it really mean?

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? 

  • A student is suspended for bringing a small knife, packed by her mother for the purpose of peeling an apple at lunch
  • A five year old kindergarten boy is suspended for kissing a girl on the playground
  • A boy is suspended for giving his cousin a cold medicine tablet for which both students had a prescription

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: 

  1. Review all documents within the district’s policies and procedures and make certain, if the term is used, it describes the behavior and not the disciplinary consequence.
  2. Educate staff, students and parents on the appropriate use of the term, as well as how it applies to student discipline.
  3. Promote the difference between the tolerance of a behavior, as opposed to the unwavering punitive consequence.
  4. Use common sense when administering student discipline. No two circumstances are ever completely the same; as the principal, recognize it and be prepared to explain your position when necessary.
  5. Make certain disciplinary policies, practices, and procedures are prudent, measured, and reasonable. Are they a result of thoughtful review or merely an over reaction related to a specific event?

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.  


Kaylin said on July 16, 2011

This is way more helpful than aynitnhg else I’ve looked at.

Brian said on April 27, 2012

Youre right, Zero tolerance for violent behavior and criminal acts in schools has always been the standard and it gets harder to save yourself. couriers guildford

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