Time to Replace Zero Tolerance with Common Sense
Schools across the nation adopted zero-tolerance policies in recent years in the wake of a few campus tragedies. That's an understandable reaction, but it was the wrong one.
Enforcing the policies has devolved into farce. Although student safety should be a top priority of school officials, students are ill-served by rules "protecting" them from phony threats such as toy soldiers, plastic butter knives and children's drawings.
Instead of mindless zero tolerance, schools need a strong dose of common sense.
Fortunately, common sense appears to be making a comeback in some places. The superintendent of a school district near Providence, R.I., which banned second-grader David Morales' homemade hat because it displayed little green, rifle-toting Army men, said last week he would work to change the district's zero-tolerance policy.
"The event exposed how a policy meant to ensure safe environments for students can become restrictive and can present an image counter to the work of our schools to promote patriotism and democracy," said Ken Di Pietro, in one of the great understatements of recent memory.
Zero tolerance might make sense when third-graders are caught packing loaded handguns in their backpacks - as happened at a suburban Detroit elementary school on June 1. Obviously, children shouldn't have deadly weapons at school, and school officials should discipline such wrongdoers.
But most states allow little or no discretion in the way principals mete out punishment. Twenty years ago, the remedy for the vast majority of these cases would have been simple: confiscate the offending item, call the parents, explain the problem and extract a promise from the student to leave it home next time. Now, the first call often is to the police.
Schools are going to absurd lengths to avoid even the appearance of a threat, banning anything that vaguely resembles a weapon. In just the past few months, students across the country have faced suspension or expulsion for wearing T-shirts with pictures of guns; playing cops and robbers with paper "guns"; bringing tiny, unrealistic toy guns to school; and packing common kitchen utensils in lunch bags.
How did we come to such a pass? Through an act of Congress, naturally. In 1994 lawmakers passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act in response to a rash of school shootings. The law required every district to establish a zero-tolerance policy for guns or risk losing federal funds.
Any student caught with a gun on campus faces a mandatory one-year expulsion and possible prosecution. Most districts toughened their rules after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, which should have given lawmakers a hint at how ineffective the federal mandate actually was. Over time, zero tolerance expanded to drugs, knives, sexual assault, gang paraphernalia and explosives - all of which were, of course, already illegal.
Di Pietro's sudden realization that a second-grade civics project poses no threat to student safety is part of an emerging trend among red-faced and publicly ridiculed educators to rethink their policies. School districts in California, Delaware, Oregon and Texas have revised their zero-tolerance rules to let teachers and administrators exercise discretion in cases involving younger students like 8-year-old David Morales.
That's a good start. But why not ensure older students don't fall victim to mindless zero-tolerance policies as well? Why not take into consideration a student's age, intent, disciplinary history and other circumstances that arise, on a case-by-case basis, instead of mindlessly punishing kids for what are often innocent mistakes?
When a policy becomes a bigger distraction than the problem it's meant to address, it's probably time to change the policy. The lesson here is clear: One-size-fits-all discipline doesn't work. Zero tolerance is intolerable.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of School Reform News.