Zero tolerance (schools): Wikis


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In the United States and Canada, zero tolerance policies in schools and other education venues have been adopted. These policies are promoted as preventing drug abuse and violence in schools. They have occasionally resulted in egregiously unfair punishments against students and teachers, especially in schools with poorly written policies.

A zero-tolerance policy is a policy of punishing any infraction of a rule, regardless of accidental mistakes, ignorance, or extenuating circumstances. The term may be used in general or with reference to a particular category of transgressions, e.g. a zero-tolerance policy against alcohol use. 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; school administrators are barred from using their judgment, reducing punishments to fit minor offenses, or considering extenuating circumstances. Consequently, these policies are sometimes derided as zero intelligence policies.[1]


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 fingernail clippers.[2]

Furthermore zero-tolerance policies have been struck down by US courts[3] and by Departments of Education.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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 (American Bar Association, 2006).

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,[7][8] including making schools "less safe".[9]

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 (a legal, non-prescription drug 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.

  • 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.[9][10] They retained the definition of "weapons" as one that equated possession of a dinner knife with arson and rape.[11]
  • A third-grade girl, 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."[12]
  • 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,[12], and in 2007, when a girl was expelled for using a utility knife to cut paper for a project.[12]
  • Earlier in 2009, an Eagle scout was suspended for three weeks for having an emergency kit in his car, that included a pocket knife. There was also a cub scout in 2nd grade who had to were his uniform to school for an event, which included a Cub Scout pocket knife. The school confiscated the knife, and almost suspended him for two weeks, if local parents had not stepped in.

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."[13]

See also


  1. ^ "Zero Tolerance is Zero Intelligence". Delaware Liberal. 06 October 2009.  
  2. ^ Final Report, Bi Partisan Working Group on Youth Violence 106th Congress, February 1996 Zero Tolerance Policy Report, American Bar Association
  3. ^ "Pensacola honor students win zero tolerance drug ruling" article of the AP/Bradenton Herald, Sept. 8, 2002 at archives Sept. 2002 pt. III
  4. ^ "Rhode Island Officials Rule School Can't Censor Teen's Yearbook Photo" (1/19/2007)
  5. ^ Rowe, Mary and Bendersky, Corinne, "Workplace Justice, Zero Tolerance and Zero Barriers: Getting People to Come Forward in Conflict Management Systems," in Negotiations and Change, From the Workplace to Society, Thomas Kochan and Richard Locke (editors), Cornell University Press, 2002
  6. ^ Russell J. Skiba Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice Policy Research Report #SRS2 August, 2000
  7. ^ Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, December 2008.
  8. ^ Zero Tolerance Policies: no substitute for good judgment Summary of the APA Task Force Report at
  9. ^ a b Nuckols, Ben (13 October 20009). "Delaware board likely to tweak zero-tolerance rule".  
  10. ^ Nuckols, Ben (14 October 2009). "Delaware 1st grader has 45-day suspension lifted".  
  11. ^ Christina School District (13 October 2009). "Christina Board Will Consider Amendment to Student Code of Conduct for Youngest Students". Press release. Retrieved 2009-10-14.  
  12. ^ a b c Urbina, Ian (12 October 2009). "It’s a Fork, It’s a Spoon, It’s a ... Weapon?". The New York Times.  
  13. ^ Urbina, Ian (13 October 2009). "After Uproar on Suspension, District Will Rewrite Rules". The New York Times.  


  • American Bar Association. Zero Tolerance Policy Report, 2001 []
  • Cox, S. & J. Wade. (19980. The Criminal Justice Network: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Ghezzi, Patti. "Zero tolerance for zero tolerance" Atlanta Constitution, March 20, 2006.
  • Noguera, Pedro A. "Preventing and Producing Violence: A Critical Analysis of Responses to School Violence," Harvard Educational Review, Summer 1995, pp. 189-212.
  • Robinson, M. (2002). Justice Blind? Ideals and Realities of American Criminal Justice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Rowe, Mary and Bendersky, Corinne, "Workplace Justice, Zero Tolerance and Zero Barriers: Getting People to Come Forward in Conflict Management Systems," in Negotiations and Change, From the Workplace to Society, Thomas Kochan and Richard Locke (editors), Cornell University Press, 2002
  • Scaringi, D. "Zero Tolerance Needed for Safe Schools." St. Petersburg (FL) Times, June 24, 2001.
  • Sherman, L., D., Gottfredson, D. MacKenzie, J. Eck, P. Reuter & S. Bushway. (1997). "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising." [1]
  • Snider, Laureen. (2004) "Zero Tolerance Reversed: Constituting the Non-Culpable Subject in Walkerton" in What is a Crime? Defining Criminal Conduct in Contemporary Canadian Society. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, and Montreal: Laval University Press (French translation), 2004: 155-84.
  • Takyi-Boadu, Charles. "On Zero-Tolerance Corruption not Province of Politicians." The Ghanaian Chronicle, March 16, 2006.

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