Zero Tolerance

A zero-tolerance policy in schools is a policy of punishing any infraction of a rule, regardless of accidental mistakes, ignorance, or extenuating circumstances. In schools, common zero-tolerance policies concern possession or use of drugs or weapons. Students, and sometimes staff, parents, and other visitors, who possess a banned item for any reason are always punished.

These policies are promoted as preventing drug abuse and violence in schools. Critics say zero tolerance in schools have occasionally resulted in punishments which have been criticised as egregiously unfair against students and teachers, especially in schools with poorly written policies. Consequently, these policies are sometimes derided as zero intelligence policies. Outside school, zero tolerance may be used in general or with reference to a particular category of transgressions, e.g. a zero-tolerance policy against alcohol use.

In the United States and Canada, zero tolerance policies have been adopted in various schools and other education venues.

Claims made in support
Supporters of zero tolerance policies claim that such policies are required to create an appropriate environment (Scaringi, 2008; Noguera, 1995). They also point to examples of persons in authority providing lax discipline in the past, with a resulting breakdown of order in the school (Scaringi, 2001).

Some supporters also argue that the mass publicizing of examples of unfairness serves the schools' purpose by frightening students into conformity instead of galvanizing them into resistance. They point to the millions of student acts and omissions each and every school day, only a small percentage of which prove to be unfairly penalized. (Noguera, 2007)

The policy assumption is that inflexibility is a deterrent because, no matter how or why the rule was broken, the fact that the rule was broken is the basis for the imposition of the penalty. This is intended as a behavior modification strategy: since those at risk know that it may operate unfairly, they may be induced to take even unreasonable steps to avoid breaking the rule. This is a standard policy in rule- and law-based systems around the world on "offenses" as minor as traffic violations to major health and safety legislation for the protection of employees and the environment. (Ghezzi, 2006)

Some view zero tolerance policies as a tool to fight corruption (Takyi-Boadu, 2006). Under this argument, if subjective judgment is not allowed, most attempts by the authority person to encourage bribes and/or other favors in exchange for leniency are clearly visible.

Claims made in criticism
Critics of zero tolerance policies frequently refer to cases where minor offenses have resulted in severe punishments and instead make schools more like a jail or a prison. Typical examples include the honor-roll student being expelled from school under a "no weapons" policy while in possession of nail clippers.

Furthermore zero-tolerance policies have been struck down by US courts and by Departments of Education.

A particularly dismaying hypothesis about zero tolerance policies is that they may actually discourage some people from reporting criminal and illegal behavior, for fear of losing relationships, and for many other reasons. That is, ironically, zero tolerance policies may be ineffective in the very purpose for which they were originally designed.

Research evidence
There is no credible evidence that zero tolerance reduces violence or drug abuse by students (Skiba 2000). Furthermore, school suspension and expulsion result in a number of negative outcomes for both schools and students.

On its face, rigid rules limit the powers of the person doing enforcement and thus should ensure equal treatment for everyone. However, the evidence indicates that minority children are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of zero tolerance.

The American Psychological Association concluded that the available evidence does not support the use of zero tolerance policies as defined and implemented, that there is a clear need to modify such policies, and that the policies create a number of unintended negative consequences, including making schools "less safe".

Media attention
Egregious cases often attract the attention of the international media. Many publicized cases have questioned the schools' disproportionate responses to technical transgressions. These cases include students being suspended or expelled for transgressions such as possession of ibuprofen or Midol (both legal, non-prescription drugs commonly used to treat menstrual cramps and headaches) with permission of the students' parents, keeping pocketknives (small utility knife) in cars, and carrying sharp tools outside of a woodshop classroom (where they are often required materials). In some jurisdictions, zero-tolerance policies have come into conflict with freedom of religion rules already in place allowing students to carry, for example, kirpans.

A Sandusky, Ohio high school student was suspended for 90 days and flunked, after school authorities found a broken pocketknife on him during a drug search in September 1999. He had used the knife to clean his golfing cleats.

After bringing a Cub Scouts dinner knife to school to eat his lunch, a six-year-old boy was ordered by Christina School District to attend an alternative school for students with behavioral problems for nine weeks. After a media uproar, the school board voted unanimously to reduce punishments for kindergartners and first-graders who take weapons to school to a 3-5 day mandatory suspension. They retained the definition of "weapons" as one that equated possession of a dinner knife with arson and rape.

A third-grade boy, also in the Christina School District, was expelled for a year because her grandmother sent a birthday cake, and a knife for cutting the cake, to school. The teacher used the knife to cut the cake, and then reported the girl to the authorities as having a dangerous weapon. The expulsion was overturned and led to a state law that gave districts the ability to, "on a case-by-case basis, modify the terms of the expulsion."

Other cases in the Christina School District include a straight-A student who was ordered to attend "reform school" after a classmate dropped a pocket knife in his lap, and in 2007, when a girl was expelled for using a utility knife to cut paper for a project.

Earlier in 2009, an Eagle scout was suspended for three weeks for having an emergency supply kit in his car, that included a pocket knife.

A kindergartner was suspended in March 2010 for making a finger gun.

Media attention has proven embarrassing to school officials, and the embarrassment has resulted in changes to state laws as well as to local school policies. One school board member gave this reason for changes his district made to their rigid policy: "We are doing this because we got egg on our face."

Zero tolerance policies have been portrayed in the American musical comedy-drama series Glee. Starting with the second season episode "Never Been Kissed", zero tolerance against bullying is promoted as being effective and is the reason gay character Kurt Hummel transfers schools after being bullied in the episode "Furt".