Questioning Zero-Tolerance Policies in Schools

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The Problem: Why Zero Tolerance?

Zero-tolerance policies nationwide are responses to the horrific acts of violence that have been perpetrated against schools and schoolchildren in recent years, such as the Columbine and Sandy Hook mass shootings. They are also seen as a way to combat smaller-scale violence and drug abuse. While zero-tolerance policies are by no means universally applied, they are becoming more and more common, particularly in settings wherein drugs, gang violence, etc. pose a threat to schools’ safety. While the effects of these relatively new policies are still being measured, the data seem to indicate that zero tolerance does have a significant positive effect in reducing violence both within and against schools and in enhancing security on school campuses.

While these positive effects seem evident, it should be noted that it is famously difficult to measure the effectiveness of any preventative measure, in that the success of such a measure lies in what does not happen. To use a parallel, the fact that no successful terrorist attacks have been made on U.S. soil since 9/11 could be due to the diligent efforts of Homeland Security but could also be due to a dearth of persons attempting such attacks. Similarly, just because a given school experiences no acts of violence against its students does not mean that its zero-tolerance policies have prevented such acts. With that caveat in mind, the object of this paper is to review the extant literature to see if a causal link (not merely a correlational link) exists between the implementation of zero tolerance and a decrease in on-campus violence.

Zero tolerance has been widely understood to mean the exclusion from school campuses of any potential weapon, any drug, or any controlled substance. This has unfortunately led to what many people see as overzealous enforcement, leading to the confiscation of items such as nail files, finger paints, and asthma medication. The punishments meted out to violating students are also often seen as draconian and counterproductive. All that said, proponents of zero tolerance state, with justification, that protecting school children is paramount and that whatever excesses occur are a small price to pay for preventing mass violence against them. But the question remains: does zero tolerance work?

The only valid comparison in such cases is before-and-after: has violence on Campus X or in School District Y in fact decreased since the implementation of zero tolerance? This would seem to be fairly straightforward, but there is an inherent problem in all such comparisons in that when one variable (school policies) changes, all other variables (the composition of the student body, social conditions, economic conditions, etc.) should remain the same to make the comparison valid. This is referred to as ceteris paribus, or “all other things being equal.” The review of the literature here will, therefore, be confined to scholarly studies rather than anecdotal material, as compelling as the latter may be. School authorities should not be complacent and assume that a given set of policies is working simply because the school hasn’t been attacked. Only rigorous research using robust data sets can produce conclusions with sufficient validity to drive policy decisions.

A Review of the Literature

The following will be a review of the literature: only that literature that reports zero-tolerance policies to be at least somewhat effective. It should be acknowledged going in that the majority of the literature extant on zero tolerance is critical, often highly so, of some aspect or aspects of it. Much of this criticism is directed at the violation of students’ civil rights. However, such violations are often trivial and the compensation is the decreased likelihood of tragic incidents, which have become all too common in recent years. The trade-off is always security vs. personal freedom but in the case of school children—society’s most valuable assets—it is best to err strongly on the side of caution.

Zero-tolerance policies are often harsh because those who enforce them wish to be fair. Excusing a minor violation opens the door for a major violation and places an undue burden on school officials to decide what is actually a punishable act and what is not. In their otherwise highly critical examination of zero tolerance in schools, Henault (2001) noted that zero tolerance “…refers to those policies which deal out severe punishments for all offenses, no matter how minor, ostensibly in an effort to treat all offenders equally in the spirit of fairness and intolerance of rule-breaking” (547). The dubious word here is “ostensibly,” in that the authors imply that strict enforcement is not really the product of an effort to be fair. Yet, it is difficult to ascribe some kind of hidden ulterior motive to those school administrators who administer these policies. It is a certainty that such authorities have a genuine desire to make their schools safer places and to avoid at all costs replications of the mass shootings that have so shocked and horrified the nation. Zero tolerance, it is seen, reflects the absolute resolve to never let those acts of violence happen on one’s own watch.

The fact of the matter is that acts of violence in schools by or against students are criminal acts. There should be no “gray area” in which either violence or the threat of violence is deemed acceptable, no matter how small the act or threat. Jull (2000) noted that in Canada, an environment largely like the U.S., researchers have found that “Students who engage in violence and anti-social behaviours do so of their own volition and conscious choice, and not because of some internal personal conflict stemming from academic exclusion, social isolation, or other…practice within the public school setting” (1). Students who offend against other students should, in fact, be treated harshly. Additionally, it is not enough to punish acts of violence; school authorities must do everything in their power to make sure such acts do not occur in the first place, even if that involves a zealous effort to eliminate weapons and gang paraphernalia.

Critics of zero-tolerance policies may point out that the most infamous acts of school violence have been perpetrated by someone, either a student or a stranger, invading the school campus with heavy armament and using it to commit mass murder. They say that stopping and searching students who are entering the school does nothing to prevent those crimes from happening. This is somewhat beside the point. Of course, it is impossible to protect a school from every possible act of violence that could be perpetrated against it. Nonetheless, the security network that is a necessary part of zero tolerance enforcement can aid in enhancing the safety of the campus. Simply strictly controlling ingress and egress can do much to prevent the possibility of a disgruntled Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold striding onto campus unmolested with an armful of weapons. Even if such a person cannot be immediately stopped by campus security, many lives can be saved simply by raising the alarm.

Zero tolerance has several beneficial side effects in addition to helping to prevent school violence. The concept of zero tolerance has been extended by many schools nationwide to include an exclusion of all forms of bullying and sexual harassment. These are, after all, forms of violence, even if they don’t involve actual physical contact. Stein (2003) noted the increased efforts nationwide to protect students from such assaults and reported that in Vermont, a student’s parents had sued the school district for allowing their son, over the course of several years, to be harassed and bullied by other students: “After initially complaining to school administrators, who had dismissed the charges as typical boy behavior, the parents filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission” (783). This is a significant paradigm shift. The problems of bullying and sexual harassment have in recent decades been dismissed all too often with “boys will be boys.” Picking fights and teasing and harassing girls were seen as indications that boys were growing up and therefore perfectly excusable; in fact, such behavior was seen as an indication of manhood. That this attitude has evolved in most sectors of society doesn’t mean that it hasn’t persisted. Moreover, there are still many cultural signs and markers, some of them quite subtle, that send the message that fighting and sexual behavior toward girls are not just acceptable but laudable behaviors for young and adolescent boys. Zero tolerance policies in schools regarding bullying and sexual harassment counteract these messages, and in order for such zero-tolerance policies to be effective, they must be strict, following the concept of zero tolerance of such behavior.

It is a sad reality that our children, through exposure to mass media, are far more inured to violence than they should be. The proper sense of outrage when one person commits a violent act against another has often been missing in our culture. It was not so long ago when it was considered justified for a man to kill another man who had insulted him. We have not yet gotten away from the culture of “justified” violence, as shown by abominations such as “stand your ground” laws, which recently, in Florida, were deemed to have allowed George Zimmerman to kill Trayvon Martin because he didn’t like the way he looked. The purpose of our schools is supposed to be to instill not just knowledge but also social values. Everyone benefits when conflicts are resolved in a nonviolent fashion. Burke and Herbert (1996) remarked that “We can maximize the success of restructuring efforts by developing nonviolent environments in which students and staff members can settle differences through discussion, debate, and compromise” (49). It is not only desirable but vital that students reject violence and embrace compromise and discussion as conflict resolution strategies. Zero tolerance policies help to counteract our unfortunate lingering cultural tendency to endorse, or at least excuse, violence. The lone gunslinger who blows away all his enemies should not be a role model for America’s youth. Quite possibly, it would be valuable to show students how during the Cold War, the world nearly ended several times because both the U.S. and Russia “stood their ground” and were very ready to be destroyed, in manly fashion, in hundreds of giant nuclear fireballs. The culture of violence must end, and zero tolerance teaches that its continuance cannot and shall not be tolerated.

Zero-tolerance policies, however, do not have to be embraced wholeheartedly by students and parents to be effective. The overarching goal is security, whether the students like it or not. While it would be nice to bring them and their parents on board, their objections should not be used as a measuring stick for the appropriateness of such policies. Furthermore, one only hears the dissatisfied elements: it is a certainty that many, many students—and their parents--emit a sigh of relief knowing that they can’t be attacked, harassed, or bullied while on campus. This quantity cannot be measured, but it is no less real for that. That said, Dunbar and Villarruel (2004) warned that the level of buy-in on the part of the community depended largely on how evenly zero-tolerance policies were enforced: “In some cases, administrators modified the policy to meet the needs and culture of their districts, while in other situations, administrators adhered to the policy as written” (351). The “modifications” the authors mentioned included what some saw as selective enforcement, particularly against minority and poor students (Dunbar & Villarruel 353). The difficulty of quantifying the reduction of stress on vulnerable students as a beneficial result of zero tolerance, as well as the perception on the part of the public that zero tolerance means one thing in one place and something else in another (an impression that seems to have some validity, as reported above by Dunbar and Villarruel), may very well distort the measurement of zero tolerance’s effectiveness. As noted above, it is difficult to measure the success of a preventative policy, because such measurement is largely based on what does not happen.

The question of whether zero-tolerance works is, in fact, largely answered by what has not happened, but it can also be measured in another way. Schools are quite often very stressful environments, not to mention dangerous. While some students are naturally disruptive, troublemakers, even violent, most students are, in fact, there to learn. If zero-tolerance reduces the stress on students and lets them concentrate on learning rather than constantly having to look over their shoulders, it can be deemed a success for that reason alone. Also, one cannot ignore the preemptive nature of drastic punishments that will be handed out for violent behavior: another quantity that can only be measured by a lack of incidents. In a study of Michigan schools, McNeal and Dunbar (2010) surveyed a population of students, asked them if they felt safer since zero tolerance had been implemented, examining “…urban student perceptions regarding their sense of safety in schools” (293). Not unexpectedly, the responses were all over the map: some students angrily rejected the idea that such policies had made them safer at all, citing some perceived injustice that had been visited on them; others, with a bit of macho swagger, said that they didn’t need school authorities to defend them. Yet, there were many respondents who expressed a great deal of relief that the new zero-tolerance properties were in place and downplayed whatever inconvenience those policies might have caused them (McNeal & Dunbar 297-298). The stress the threat of school violence inflicted on such students may have been “invisible” but it was no less real for that. Zero tolerance sends the message to such students that their safety is paramount; it also sends the same message to potential offenders, especially in the context of the often drastic punishments meted out to those who break the rules.

What Does Not Happen: Quantifying the Effectiveness of Zero Tolerance

From a statistical standpoint, acts of mass violence against schools and school children are quite rare. Such a small sample size means that any reduction in such incidents after zero-tolerance policies were introduced would not be statistically significant. In other words, a rise in the percentage of schools nationwide that had not experienced acts of mass violence from, say, 99.997% to 99.998% over the course of a decade would not be meaningful. The true measurement, therefore, would be in whatever reduction had occurred in the less sensational acts of violence that it was the true goal of zero-tolerance policies to prevent: non-lethal violence, bullying, sexual and other forms of harassment, and drug abuse. This author could not locate any sufficiently rigorous studies wherein such comparisons had been made. One quite possible reason is that the majority of such incidents were never reported before zero-tolerance policies made them against school rules. In point of fact, if such rules resulted in an increase in the percentage of incidents that were reported, that could give an erroneous indication of an increase in such incidents. This seems to be a significant possible obstacle to any quantifying studies of the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies.

The objections that are raised to zero tolerance are many and most of them quite valid, at least to some degree. Yet, it does seem that many of those objections are due more to uneven or inconsistent enforcement of the rules rather than to the rules themselves. In an increasingly dangerous world, we as a society have been more and more willing to give up some degree of personal freedom in exchange for security. How desirable this exchange is is the subject of endless debate, but in terms of safety in our schools, it seems clear that a zero-tolerance school will be safer than a non-zero-tolerance school. Bottom line: we want to keep our children safe. Considerations of personal freedom are somewhat nebulous compared to the very justified fear of our children being victims of violence in what, after all, is supposed to be a haven for them. In any event, it has been long established—centuries before zero tolerance—that children do not have the same civil rights as adults. Therefore, objections such as a student invoking his right to free speech when sent home for wearing a t-shirt with a swastika on it, or a student invoking the Second Amendment when his weapon is taken away from him, are groundless. Focusing on alleged violations of civil rights shifts the debate away from where it actually belongs.

It is this author’s conclusion that despite the lack of confirming quantifiable studies, it is clear that zero-tolerance policies increase school safety and decrease the frequency of on-campus violent incidents, from tabloid-worthy mass shootings to one student shoving another into a wall. The net effect will be a cultural sea change, from a winking attitude toward violence (especially that perpetrated by boys) to the resounding statement that violence should not and will not be tolerated, period. That zero-tolerance policies are often overzealously or unevenly applied does not obviate the reason or the justification for such policies. It is this author’s prediction that when zero-tolerance policies have been in place long enough to allow quantifying studies (long enough to accumulate robust data sets), it will be shown that those policies did indeed reduce violence in schools and were therefore quite effective. These effects can already be seen in the increasing societal revulsion against bullying and sexual harassment in schools. There is a growing realization that violence doesn’t always involve physical assault, and that verbal and behavioral violence can be just as or even more harmful. One example of this is the wave of adolescent suicides resulting from social network-based bullying. Zero-tolerance policies are correct because our society should have zero tolerance for violent and/or abusive behavior. The freedom to commit violent acts against another person does not actually exist, so any objections based on that so-called “freedom” are inherently faulty. This must be impressed on our society at large.

Works Cited

Burke, Ethelda, and Don Herbert. “Zero Tolerance Policy: Combating Violence in Schools.” NASSP Bulletin 80.579 (1996): 49-54.

Dunbar, Christopher, and Francisco A. Villarruel. "What a Difference the Community Makes: Zero Tolerance Policy Interpretation and Implementation." Equity & Excellence in Education 37.4 (2004): 351-359.

Henault, Cherry. (2001). “Zero Tolerance in Schools.” JL & Educ., 30, 547.

Jull, Stephen. "Youth Violence, Schools, and the Management Question: A Discussion of Zero Tolerance and Equity in Public Schooling." Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy 17.0 (2000): 1-14.

McNeal, Laura, and Christopher Dunbar. "In the Eyes of the Beholder: Urban Student Perceptions of Zero Tolerance Policy." Urban Education 45.3 (2010): 293-311.

Stein, Nan. "Bullying or Sexual Harassment: The Missing Discourse of Rights in an Era of Zero Tolerance." Ariz. L. Rev. 45 (2003): 783.