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Does Zero Tolerance Work in Schools?

5 Reasons Zero Tolerance Can Do More Harm Than Good


zero tolerance

Does Zero Tolerance work?

Amanda Morin

It's a question being asked by parents and professionals all across the nation: Does Zero Tolerance work in schools? Zero Tolerance began as law calling for expulsion for having a gun on school property, but has morphed into a way of dealing with bullying, drugs, alcohol and any act of violence, be it physical, verbal or attitudinal.

In some school districts, Zero Tolerance has slowly become synonymous with "we don't want to put up with any sort of nonsense." Such policies impose severe consequences for violations and, in some cases, this is doing more harm than good.

5 Reasons Zero Tolerance Policies Don't Work:

1. Zero tolerance can hurt the victim of bullying. Consider this scenario:

  • A child has been bullied for quite some time. So far, the bullying has taken the form of humiliation and verbal abuse, but today it gets physical and the child is attacked by his tormentors. He fights back to get away. The teacher takes all the students to the principal who, upon hearing what happened, suspends or expels all of the students, including the victim. Under a zero tolerance policy he has no flexibility to consider the circumstances because physical violence is across the board unacceptable.

2. Zero tolerance policies can take away a classroom teacher's autonomy to settle minor incidents and prevent bullying. Consider this: 

  • A kindergarten class is having free play. In the course of play, a little boy says to another "I'm going to kill you."  The teacher would really like to take the opportunity to use this as a teaching moment. She could talk to the students about what words really mean, how some phrases can't be used even in jest and how singling out one person can be considered bullying. But under the zero tolerance policy she is required to report the incident to the administrator. The administrator then deals with the child as though he truly made a death threat.

    3. Zero tolerance policies can be discriminatory to students with special needs. As Terri Mauro, About.com Guide to Special Children, points out in her article Is Zero Tolerance Unfair to Students With Special Needs?, students with behavioral and emotional disabilities are often disciplined under these policies.

    Under special education law, each case needs to be dealt with individually and with flexibility, if the incident is related to the student's disability. Those flexible solutions aren't always helpful. A student who needs routine to function or who comes from a rough home will not benefit from suspension or expulsion. An example:  

    • When I first began teaching, I worked in a classroom for children with behavioral impairments. One of our students who came from a very abusive, neglectful home, was suspended one morning for threatening another teacher. To our surprise, he was back in his seat after lunch, having snuck back into school because it was the safer option.

      4. Zero tolerance policies don't take age into account. District-wide policies require a curious kindergartner to be treated the same as an older student determined to bully or do harm. Case in point:

      • In Anderson County, Tennessee in 2008, eight children were expelled under the Zero Tolerance policy. One of those children was a kindergarten student who brought a toy gun to school in his backpack, another was a middle-schooler who threatened to shoot the principal. The intent was very different, but the punishment was the same.

      5. Zero tolerance policies can punish the well-intended. A real-life scenario from Longmont, Colorado demonstrates this point:

      • Fifth-grader, Shanon Cosiet's mother packed a knife in her lunchbox with which Shanon could cut her apple. Understanding that knives were against the rules, Shanon turned the knife in to a teacher, was praised for doing the right thing and then expelled under the zero-tolerance policy because she was in possession of a weapon.


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