tolerance—the phrase says exactly what it means: no second
chances, no mistakes, no questions, no ifs, ands or buts.
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
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.
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.
basic premise of these policies—to keep our kids and our
schools safe—is admirable. But what they lack is common
Reacting to School Violence
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.
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.
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.
U.S. Department of Education defines a zero-tolerance policy
as one that “mandates predetermined consequences or punishments
for specific offenses.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Boston, a student was suspended for writing an assigned
horror story in which a fictitous teacher was killed.
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.”
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
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
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.
out how the school teaches conflict resolution, how the
teachers model peacemaking or how the playground and cafeteria
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.
a Little Common Sense
as we cannot neatly package any kid or situation, we cannot
apply an all-encompassing discipline policy.
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.”
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.