In Defense of Zero Tolerance

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While zero-tolerance policies in schools have come under fire in recent years as being unnecessarily draconian and inherently socioeconomically and racially discriminatory in nature, the fact of the matter is that these policies have largely succeeded in creating a safer and more productive learning environment in our nation’s schools. Opponents of zero tolerance policies often fail to understand that there remains a significant degree of discretion on the part of school administrators in terms of the application of these protocols and that zero-tolerance has given the school system the necessary tools to stamp out violent, unsafe, and disruptive behavior in the classroom. By dealing with these infractions in a consistent and serious manner zero-tolerance policies have helped ensure that students are physically and emotionally safe and able to focus and make the most of their educational opportunities. Zero tolerance may appear to be a harsh and heavy-handed policy, but the fact of the matter is that it is necessary to create a secure environment where academic growth can successfully take place.

To adequately address the efficiency of zero-tolerance policies it is imperative to first develop a working definition of exactly what these policies entail. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, “‘Zero Tolerance’ initially was defined as consistently enforced suspension and expulsion policies in response to weapons, drugs and violent acts in the school setting...Most frequently, zero-tolerance policies address drug, weapons, violence, smoking and school disruption in efforts to protect all students' safety and maintain a school environment that is conducive to learning.” We can, therefore, state that zero tolerance refers to uniformly enforced punitive policies regarding violent, dangerous, or disruptive behavior in the school setting. With this definition in mind, we can begin to examine the beneficial effects of zero-tolerance policies on the academic environment.

The adoption of zero-tolerance policies has a remarkable and positive effect on the school safety and governability of a student body. As Dr. Nesa Sasser states, “Zero tolerance may yield positive effects of communicating to parents, teachers and students that certain behaviors such as drug possession, fighting or profanity are not allowed in schools. Students are accountable for the actions and teachers are able to articulate clear expectations about disciplinary consequences and provide a chaos-free climate.” The clear and unequivocal tone set by zero-tolerance policies allows for a healthy academic setting where students can focus on learning and bettering themselves without fearing for their safety or being distracted by disruptive and unruly peers. When unacceptable or dangerous behavior is punished swiftly and consistently schools are able to ensure that the academic mission of the institution is not subordinated to the whims of unruly and disturbed students who if left unchecked can endanger and distract their classmates. Most importantly, zero-tolerance policies ensure the security of the student body so that the educational mission of the school can proceed effectively.

The most important element of zero-tolerance policies is that, quite simply, they are effective at reducing violence and ensuring a safe learning environment for students. As Amy C. Nelson states, “research has found that zero-tolerance is related to an improvement in the rates of violence in schools.” Zero tolerance policies are a useful and even essential tool towards curbing violence within our school system, which should be of paramount importance to administrators given the difficulties involved with academic performance in an institution plagued by violence and the moral and legal obligation our educational system has to protect students at all costs. If a technique has been definitively shown to make students safer it should certainly not be discarded under any circumstances, given the importance of safety for our children. In addition, zero tolerance has also proved to be an effective method to curtail the epidemic of bullying in many schools.

Bullying is one of the biggest disciplinary issues in the school system and has myriad toxic and destructive effects on the social and educational outlook of victims. When a violent and potentially dangerous bullying situation takes place, as Ginnette D. Roberge states, “the absence of contact between an individual who has bullied and the person victimized continuously by acts of bullying could be necessary in the interest of the safety of students. This absence of contact is guaranteed in a zero-tolerance approach to bullying. Incidents of extreme violence may also be prevented.” This is an excellent example of a widespread situation where zero-tolerance policies are essential to preserving the safety and wellbeing of certain students. Given what we know about the horrendous effects of bullying on those who are victimized and the potentially devastating consequences of unchecked situations of this variety it is essential that the technique most likely to prevent any violent outcomes be utilized. In addition, zero-tolerance policies are effective not only at curbing violent and dangerous behavior but also at halting the sort of disruptive influences that can negatively impact the scholastic improvement of the student body.

Zero tolerance policies are a valuable tool in maintaining a focused and disciplined academic atmosphere. As Sasser states, “A chaotic environment decreases the learning because of the constant interruptions, and school administrators find that zero tolerance is an effective means to maintaining a safe and disciplined learning environment. Beyond keeping children safe, teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn in a climate marked by chaos and disruption.” Therefore, zero tolerance is an effective policy not only at keeping students safe from violence or bullying, but also at ensuring that they are able to focus on academics in an environment free from disruption and distraction. A school where unintellectual behavior is not tolerated will by definition foster a more academically motivated and engaged student body. Furthermore, zero-tolerance policies give administrators the means to effectively curb violent, dangerous, and disruptive behavior swiftly and immediately while still leaving room for a degree of compassion and flexibility.

The most commonly criticized aspect of zero-tolerance policies is that they create an environment where discretion cannot be utilized and extenuating circumstances are not taken into account. However, a close examination of the use of these policies proves that this is often not the case. As the Mackinac Center for Public Policy states in their article on the issue, “Despite critics who claim that the inflexibility of zero-tolerance policies treats many students unfairly, Olivet Community Schools superintendent David Campbell asserts that ultimately, the decision to expel is not mandated by zero-tolerance policies, but rather rests in the hands of local school boards.” This proves that while often portrayed as inflexible and unyielding, zero-tolerance policies often allow for a much greater deal of discretion and judgment on the part of administrators than many critics realize. There remains a degree of understanding and willingness to take into account specific situations even with the most rigorous of zero-tolerance policies. This is a trend we see in almost every circumstance where zero-tolerance policies are applied.

In fact, a close examination of the outcomes of zero-tolerance policies indicates that the punishments are not nearly as strict or intractable as many critics assert. As Dennis Cauchon states, “Even under zero tolerance, most students don't get kicked out of school, even for the most serious offenses. According to a study in 1997 by the Department of Education, only 31% of students who brought a gun to school in 1995-96 were expelled” and “only 18% of students committing a drug offense were expelled from schools with zero-tolerance policies.” These simple statistics illustrate that critics of the zero-tolerance system who rely on anecdotal evidence of unusual cases where unfairly harsh penalties were handed down for minor offenses fail to see that in the overwhelming majority of instances there is room for specific evaluation of the incident at hand and a commensurate response. The numbers show that those who assert that zero-tolerance systems uniformly punish minor offenses with excessive discipline are simply incorrect. In fact, the careful evaluation of the details of specific incidents is a longstanding hallmark of zero tolerance.

The willingness to acknowledge and consider the specificity of individual situations has actually been one of the hallmarks of zero tolerance since the inception of the policy with the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. As Russell J. Skiba states, “by requiring local school districts to have in place a procedure allowing for case-by-case review, the Gun-Free Schools Act seems to mandate some degree of flexibility in the implementation of zero tolerance” (7). The fact that zero-tolerance policies in large part contain mandated review of the particularities and circumstances of each case indicates that the policies are applied fairly and equitably, and not in the rigid and intractable manner that many critics of the system assert. The policies merely serve to give authorities the power to quickly and decisively halt dangerous behavior and practices, while still allowing for a much greater degree of flexibility and rational consideration than many realize. This is not to say that occasionally punishments are not doled out that are excessive given the infraction, but that the fault lies with individual administrators rather than with the policy of zero tolerance.

Many of the occasional egregious examples of disproportionate punishment given in the name of zero tolerance are not reflective of the true nature of the policy. Yvette Daniel and Karla Bondy argue that the central issue in these cases was that “school administrators...failed to apply the discretionary clauses provided in legislation and policies” (5). The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of zero-tolerance policies provide a mechanism for rational discussion of the specific details of a situation and that if these mechanisms are not utilized it is the fault of the administrators in charge, not of the actual policy. Any policy can cause negative effects if interpreted improperly and zero tolerance is no exception. This ties into another issue regarding the discussion of zero-tolerance policies, which is that the phrase is an umbrella term that actually relates to a variety of interrelated yet distinct disciplinary systems.

One interesting aspect of the crusade against zero-tolerance policies is that opponents of this type of disciplinary system fail to understand that the term refers to a wide variety of different policies with varying degrees of intensity. As the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force admits in their criticism of the practice, “Such policies appear to be relatively widespread in America’s schools, although the lack of a single definition of zero tolerance makes it difficult to estimate how prevalent such policies may be” (852). Not only does the lack of a clear definition of zero tolerance make it difficult to ascertain the pervasiveness of such policies, but it also means that many of the common critiques of this system that refer to isolated incidents of seemingly disproportionate punishments are not necessarily indicative of the reality of the practice in the majority of cases. The reality is that zero-tolerance refers to a wide variety of punitive measures and that the commonality between them is largely a lack of tolerance for violence and disturbances rather than illogical punishment. In addition, it is quite clear that those in the best position to evaluate the effect of such policies first hand view them as an invaluable tool in the quest for safer and more effective learning environments.

One of the most obvious pieces of evidence in favor of the utilization of zero-tolerance policies is the unequivocal support for this sort of system from teachers and administrators. As Sasser states, “Teachers favor zero-tolerance policies because they are clear guidelines of expectations and consequences that make students and parents accountable for the behavior of students. Administrators view zero tolerance policies as fast-acting interventions that project the message that major offenses are not tolerated in school under any circumstances.” Given that the individuals responsible for the implementation of the policies view them as highly effective it would be absurd and unnecessary to halt the practice. No one is in a better position to evaluate the virtues of zero tolerance than teachers and administrators, and their support for the system demonstrates its practicality. Support for zero tolerance is also evident in specific interviews with safety experts.

Approval of zero-tolerance policies is evident in discussions with safety consultants and administrators. As Mary Nash-Wood states in her interview with a school administrator, “Roy Murry, Caddo director of security, said the policies are necessary not only to ensure school safety but also to act as a deterrent. ‘We have 42,000 students we are trying to keep safe every day and that means we have to make sure that they don't have any items that can cause themselves or others harm,’ Murry said.” When those who are responsible for the safety and well being of the student body unambiguously state that zero-tolerance policies are an essential tool for them to effectively safeguard the students in their care it is irresponsible and reckless to suggest that we deprive them of the means to do their jobs. A lack of tolerance for weapons and other potentially dangerous items in an academic environment filled with children is not an unreasonable or unnecessary policy decision, but rather an absolutely vital protocol for the safe and effective operation of a school. This point of view has also consistently been supported by the legal system when various lawsuits and challenges to zero-tolerance policies have been put forth.

While many view zero-tolerance policies as racially discriminatory and inherently biased against marginalized and disenfranchised socioeconomic groups, this interpretation of the system has been roundly rejected by the legal system. As Russell J. Skiba states, when, following the expulsion of seven students for a fight after a football game, anti-zero tolerance advocates “filed suit against the district on behalf of six of the students...alleging procedural improprieties, harsh punishments exceeding the offense, and racial bias...Judge Robert McLoskey turned back that suit on all counts, ruling that the Decatur School Board was well within its rights when it expelled the students” (1). Clearly, if these policies had the discriminatory, unevenly applied, and excessively harsh penalties that many critics assert, the court system would not fully reject said claims in such a high profile case. The legal system has instead repeatedly held that there is nothing illegal about zero tolerance, and if these policies truly had the discriminatory effects that many claim they do they would certainly be regarded as illegal and forced to be halted. Furthermore, the ruling in this particular case is not an isolated incident, but rather a representative example of the consistent and consensus approach towards this issue within the judicial system.

The aforementioned case is an excellent example of the judicial philosophy towards zero tolerance that we see displayed throughout the country in a variety of cases. As Skiba states, “The ruling of Judge Robert McLoskey against the defendants in the Decatur expulsion case is not unusual; in general, courts have tended to side with school districts in such cases, giving relatively broad leeway to district administrators in their interpretation of school disciplinary policy” (6). Given the explicit legal protections against discrimination that citizens of the United States enjoy it is ludicrous to suggest that policies that have been repeatedly scrutinized by the judicial system for any sign of prejudiced or inequitable implications and have universally accepted as legal have any sort of inherently unfair nature. The widespread acceptance of zero tolerance by the legal system proves that there is no discriminatory component whatsoever to the usage of such policies, and if the legal system that forms the foundation of our morality as a society has no objection to their use after careful study it is disingenuous to suggest that there is anything unethical about their application. Overall, the legal system’s acceptance of zero tolerance as a policy is a powerful endorsement of the morality and fairness of this disciplinary methodology.

A careful examination of the uses and implications of zero tolerance policies in schools illustrates that these practices are an effective and important tool for teachers and administrators. Zero tolerance policies efficiently curb violence and bullying, as well as disruptive and distracting behavior. This creates a secure and engaging academic environment. Zero tolerance policies also contain a great deal more mechanisms for commensurate and appropriate reactions to specific situations than many critics realize. Isolated cases where excessive punishments have been meted out are more indicative of the failure of administrators to appropriately apply the policies than they are of any inherent malfeasance on the part of the policy. Furthermore, this disciplinary system has been meticulously scrutinized by the justice system for any hint of discrimination, inequitable treatment, or unnecessarily harsh punishment and has been consistently absolved these allegations. Overall, zero-tolerance policies have proven to be an effective method of maintaining the security and academic integrity of our nation’s schools, and as a result, they deserve to be continued and expanded well into the future.

Works Cited

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. "Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective In The Schools?: An Evidentiary Review And Recommendations.." American Psychologist 63.9 (2008): 852-862. Print.

Cauchon, Dennis. "Zero-Tolerance Policies Lack Flexibility." USA Today. 13 Apr. 1999. Web. 11 Feb. 2014. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/educate//ednews3.htm

Daniel, Yvette, and Karla Bondy. "Safe Schools and Zero Tolerance: Policy, Program and Practice in Ontario ."Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy 70 (2008): 1-20. University of Manitoba. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.

Nash-Wood, Mary. "Are School Zero-Tolerance Policies Too Harsh?." USA Today. 4 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2011-12-04/zero-tolerance-policy/51632100/1.

Nelson, Amy C. "NASP CQ 37-4 - The Impact of Zero Tolerance School Discipline Policies: Issues of Exclusionary Discipline." National Association of School Psychologists. Dec. 2008. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.

Roberge, Ginette D. "From Zero Tolerance to Early Intervention: The Evolution of School Anti-bullying Policy ."Northern Arizona University. Web. 12 Feb. 2014. http://nau.edu/uploadedFiles/Academic/COE/About/Projects/From%20Zero%20Tolerance%20to%20Early%20Intervention.pdf

Sasser, Nesa. "Positive Effects of the Zero Tolerance Policy Used in Schools."Global Post. Web. 12 Feb. 2014. <http://everydaylife.globalpost.com/positive-effects-zero-tolerance-policy-used-schools-17208.html>.

Skiba, Russell J.. "Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice." University of Indiana. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2014. http://www.indiana.edu/~safeschl/ztze.pdf

“‘Zero-tolerance’ Policies Aim to Reduce School Violence." Mackinac Center. 13 Dec. 2001. Web. 12 Feb. 2014. <http://www.mackinac.org/3893>.

"Zero Tolerance and Alternative Strategies: A Fact Sheet for Educators and Policymakers." National Association of School Psychologists Fact Sheet. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. http://www.nasponline.org/resources/factsheets/zt_fs.aspx