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Zero-tolerance in schools run amok

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In the good old days, when a kid misbehaved—shoved another child, disrupted a class, pointed his finger and said, “Bang!”—the result was a sit down with the parents and principal, along with a subsequent detention or two or three. Then came 1994 when Congress, in an effort to ensure safety, came up with its Gun Free School Act requiring states receiving federal education funding to expel any student who brought a gun to school. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it even came with its own catch phrase: zero-tolerance.

Post Columbine, though, it morphed and became all-encompassing, so that even carrying cough drops, nail clippers, or a fold-out comb became an expellable offense. Scores of such unintended consequences abound, including:

  • A 7-year-old boy charged with possession of an imitation firearm because of his Nerf-style gun that shoots small soft balls.
  • A 6-year-old cub scout sentenced to 45 days in reform school because of a camping utensil that serves as fork, knife, and spoon all in one.
  • Several kindergarteners suspended for 3 days after playing “cops and robbers” during recess and using their fingers as guns.
  • A second grader suspended having bitten his Pop-Tart into the shape of a mountain that school administrators mistook for a gun.
  • A 13-year-old boy suspended and required to take drug-awareness classes having accepted a Certs breath mint from a friend.

You get the picture ….

Nevertheless, zero-tolerance continues to have its proponents who say it:

  1. Establishes an appropriate and safe school environment for all kids.
  2. Avoids lax disciplinary action on the part of inattentive administrators.
  3. Maintains order in schools.
  4. Gets everyone on the same page.
  5. Keeps kids, teachers, and administrators on their toes knowing that even minor infractions have significant consequences—a sort of behavior modification strategy.

Such arguments, however, do little to mollify the growing number of zero-tolerance critics outraged by the severe punishments meted out for minor offenses and decrying the law’s inflexibility and lack of common sense. In fact, some time ago, Time Magazine described this post Columbine state of affairs as “a national crackdown on Alka-Seltzer” after at least 20 children in four states were suspended for possessing the fizzing tablets.

Meanwhile and definitely unintended is the reluctance now by many students and faculty to report minor infractions given the terrible consequences that are sure to follow. Moreover, the National Association of School Psychologists says the law is “ineffective and harmful to students,” since those with behavior issues receive less supervision when suspended.

Concerns are also borne out by a recent Vera Institute of Justice report that found that academic failure, dropping out, and contact with the juvenile justice system are associated with suspensions, and these too often are doled out for minor violations like tardiness, being disrespectful, and disrupting class.

That finding is echoed by Attorney General Eric Holder who says that, “Too often zero-tolerance policies, however well-intentioned they might be, make students feel unwelcome in their own schools; they disrupt the learning process, and they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people, increasing their likelihood of future contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

Additionally, that same Vera report found that between 1973 and 2009, the number of secondary students suspended or expelled rose almost 40%, with boys twice as likely as girls to be so penalized and blacks four times more often than whites.

Such findings and statistics have thus prompted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to say, “The need to rethink and redesign discipline practices is frankly long overdue.”

Oh, yes--especially given that some two million kids are suspended every year.

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