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Will Zero Tolerance Save Our Kids?


Zero tolerance—the phrase says exactly what it means: no second chances, no mistakes, no questions, no ifs, ands or buts.

Under many zero-tolerance policies, bringing a plastic knife to school for your lunch is equivalent to bringing a switchblade. Or giving a friend aspirin is the same as selling narcotics. Since they are considered equal, so is the punishment—no questions asked.

As a parent, I struggle with the issue. After every school shooting or close call I find myself—like many others—wanting schools to clamp down on any potential for violence.

But once the shock and anger pass, I realize that our schools are still one of the safest places for our kids and most of the offenses committed by students fall more into the category of bad judgment than violence.

The basic premise of these policies—to keep our kids and our schools safe—is admirable. But what they lack is common sense.

Reacting to School Violence

Schools began instituting zero-tolerance policies following Congress’s passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act in 1994. Under both, schools receiving federal funding must have a no-tolerance policy toward guns.

But it was the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, that sparked a rise in and broadening of zero-tolerance policies throughout the country.

Pushed by parents to ensure that their children were safe, schools began instituting zero-tolerance policies not only against weapons and drugs, but also against offenses such as threats, fighting, vandalism, tardiness, sexual harassment, cheating and the like.

The U.S. Department of Education defines a zero-tolerance policy as one that “mandates predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses.”

Those in favor of these policies say it is better to be safe than sorry. Those against them say that many students are being hit with punishments that don’t fit their offenses.

Even school administrators are beginning to find the rigidness of these policies to be problematic. Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says, “These policies are tough, because there are shades of gray in there.”

Under the current zero-tolerance policies, students have been suspended or expelled for things such as pointing a chicken nugget at a teacher and saying “Pow, pow, pow,” as a first-grader in Arkansas did. Other students have been disciplined for bringing Advil or nail clippers to school, or playing cops and robbers on the playground. The list of these types of incidents is growing.

In Toronto, Canada, a teenage boy was arrested and detained for 34 days—through Christmas and New Year’s Day—for writing and performing a monologue in his drama class about a harassed student preparing to blow up his school.

Writers in Canada have rallied around the boy, saying school officials overreacted. Neil Wilson, director of the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, said the teenage boy “did what we counsel all the time: If you’ve got problems, write about them.”

In Boston, a student was suspended for writing an assigned horror story in which a fictitous teacher was killed.

Thomas Payzant, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, defended the action by saying, “While school officials may not have the right answer, they have to err on the side of caution.”

School officials also point out that, while the news is full of negative stories regarding zero tolerance, little is heard about incidents that have been avoided because of these policies or whether students feel safer with the policies in place.

Finding Middle Ground

So what can we do? First of all, find out if your child’s or grandchild’s school has a zero-tolerance policy. If so, become familiar with exactly what the policy states. Talk it over with the child and make sure he/she understands what is expected and the possible consequences of certain actions.

If there are things in the policy with which you are uncomfortable or feel are extreme, schedule a meeting with school officials or become involved in the school’s parents association. Make your concerns known.

Check out how the school teaches conflict resolution, how the teachers model peacemaking or how the playground and cafeteria are monitored.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige recently said, “I urge every parent and every student to listen closely to children who express concern, anger or fear concerning their teachers and their classmates.” The key is to allow this type of dialogue without fear of repercussions or punishment.

Injecting a Little Common Sense

Just as we cannot neatly package any kid or situation, we cannot apply an all-encompassing discipline policy.

After the Columbine shootings, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles pointed out, “There are no simple solutions....But we can turn away from a culture of violence—a culture of death—and toward life: a culture of life to shape how we treat one another, how we live together and the messages that we send to our young people.”

Zero tolerance—with its one-size-fits-all assessment of offenses and punishments—is the wrong message. These policies are a good starting point, but it’s time to add a little common sense to zero-tolerance policies. —S.H.B.


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