Zero-tolerance Policies: An In-Depth Analysis and Explanation of Shortcomings

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Zero-tolerance, or the concept in schools of punishing any and all infractions of any rule, regardless of consequences, is becoming a greater and greater issue in the twenty-first century. At first glance, zero-tolerance policies sound logical: keep every situation simple by applying punishment to all rule-breakers, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. While this concept seems sound on paper, the reality is that the zero-tolerance policy simply creates more problems than it solves. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the most prominent of these is the loss of safety and casualness within the school environment, as students become more worried about obeying every single rule to a tee. A public school is not a prison, and there are far too many factors within each individual infraction to apply such a blanket solution to rule violations within a school. The policy of zero-tolerance as a punishment tool to increase school safety has become ineffective. A better approach is to adopt proven alternative discipline methods to address school safety. For this reason, zero-tolerance policies in schools should be outlawed in favor of more forgiving policies that at least attempt to examine as many factors in an infraction as possible.

Zero-tolerance policies have largely only been implemented recently, as reactionary measures against a growing wave of crime and violence within public schools. In response to these violent episodes in major cities across the United States, and in other countries as well, zero-tolerance policies have been implemented in many elementary and high schools. The implementation of these Zero-tolerance policies also means an implementation of dress codes, metal detectors at school entrances, immediate removal of students who perpetrate violence or engage in gang activity, searches of students and their property, and the use of security guards to monitor student behavior (Axelman 38). Perhaps a more extreme example of this can be seen in Chicago's public school system. In response to the violence and deaths in Chicago Public High Schools, the city of Chicago is using 30 million dollars in federal stimulus funds to facilitate a program targeted at creating “cultures of calm” at 38 high schools (Kennedy 17). In addition, Chicago has implemented a “Safe Passage” program which is targeting each school district to help provide a system of involving the neighborhood to implement a community watch for students (Kennedy 17). On a university level, Virginia Tech has implemented a wide range of safety features which include having dormitories locked at all times, additional video monitoring, and emergency protocol. Many universities have instituted a common sense approach to safety such as well-lit grounds and reminding students to not travel alone across campus at night.

Another negative concerning zero-tolerance policies themselves is the simply stigma that is commonly associated with them. Even now, the connotation of zero-tolerance and extreme strictness is strong. For example, a mother who has two options for where to send her child: a school with zero-tolerance policies and one without, will probably be more likely to choose the school without zero-tolerance policies on the basis of its reputation alone. This represents a key failure of zero-tolerance policies on the whole, as the concept itself is now entirely tainted by its own failings. A soiled reputation of this magnitude can only be remedied by either a profound change in the methods of zero-tolerance policies, or a removal of zero-tolerance policies altogether.

Zero-tolerance policies are largely a reactionary measure to simple changes in the social structure of schools, and these changes in social structure are not, strictly speaking, negative. The landscape of elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities has changed significantly in the twenty-first century; however, the key academic elements remain the same. The social environment has changed to reflect the moral and emotional social upheaval prevalent in today’s society. Perhaps what is even more of a threat to children and teenagers in today's world are the various forms of media they are being exposed to, much of which can be attributed to the rise in crime in schools. The leading television series' are those depicting murder and violence. Even cartoons often written by cynical adults depict violence and contain adult themes. Television programs from Nick Jr. to Teen Wolf are the babysitters and entertainment vehicles for many children. A small population of television producers, writers and other entertainment decision makers yield a huge influence over the minds of children and adults. Both parents working forty to sixty hours a week significantly cuts down the time spent with their children on a daily basis. Technology has expanded distance between true social interactions. These influences have contributed to the mental and emotional attitude of students in this century. These influences have helped to create a culture of violence, fear and social upheaval on school campuses everywhere, and represent the root of the problem that zero-tolerance policies are attempting to solve.

Zero-tolerance policies also remove the concept of innocence and education through teamwork that has long been a staple in schools, and force too much of the focus in schools to be on security and enforcement of rules. Once upon a time, children attended school to learn how to read, write, add and subtract. Children looked forward to being introduced to team activities and sports, and on a social level making life-long friends and companions. However, today's learning environment is impeded by the additional burden of keeping students safe in their current learning environment. With more than ten mass public shootings in 2012-2013, safety is at forefront of any school administrator. Furthermore, there has always been an element of peer pressure that is sometimes acted out in the form of bullying and other negative behavior. This has often resulted in self-esteem issues for the victims of these acts. The escalated retaliation, such as what happened at Columbine High School in 1999, is a sobering reality. At many inner city schools across America violent behavior is normal. Students especially in depressed communities have almost overwhelming obstacles to learning, and zero-tolerance policies only make these learning obstacles that much more difficult to overcome for these students.

Zero-tolerance policies are oftentimes almost comically oppressive in their enforcement. "Bubble-blowers, fingers, and pastries have all led to the suspension of five-, six-, and seven-year-old offenders from America’s schools. When school officials act on their belief that a five-year-old threatening to discharge a Hello Kitty bubble blower constitutes a 'terrorist threat, something in our practice of school discipline has clearly gone wrong " (Dunn 51). Now that the judicial system is involved in how are children are educated, school administrators are attempting to play it safe with a zero-tolerance policy. The hope that having rules in black and white will limit the disciplinary decisions they will need to make in this sensitive environment is simply misguided and untrue. Many students are now receiving disciplinary marks on the school records for infractions they would not have been penalized for otherwise, sullying the reputation of otherwise pristine students.

Another driving force behind a zero-tolerance policy is more specific to urban landscapes and depressed communities: gang violence. Often the threat of gang retaliation, recruiting, intimidation and avoidance take center stage in the minds of urban city children. Public schools in urban areas have been plagued by gang activity. Compounding this problem is the concept of zero-tolerance, which oftentimes put restrictions on arbitrary criteria, such as colors being worn. Students, who should be focusing on academics, are worried about what color is appropriate to wear, and how to get home safely. Even with zero-tolerance policies, gang activity remains strong within the public school system, as gang members are not known to be a law-abiding bunch. The pressure to join or not join a local gang is overwhelming. Often the gang mentality is part of the social culture or structure of a neighborhood. This type of behavior presents a vivid and very real threat to the student body. The administrators are aware of these conditions, and believe that adherence and the enforcement of strict rules will create a safer environment, even though this is simply not the case.

Many people are content to lay the blame for the obvious failure of zero-tolerance policies entirely on the school higher-ups themselves. However, the role of keeping students safe while attending school involves more than the school’s administration. A child’s parent is the first line of defense. Parents are responsible to oversee a student’s safety to and from school, especially at elementary ages. One way to help alleviate many of the problems at school is to simply have the parental figures involved more in the life of their child or children. For example, a child will feel much safer going to and from school if their parent takes them, rather than take the bus. Of course, for all parents to accompany their children to school every day is almost impossible, but parents are responsible for facilitating the journey. For example, parents should attempt to ensure that their children are walking to and from school with other children or adults. Another step that can be taken to help alleviate trouble at school is to facilitate communication between the child and parents. If possible, children should be provided with cell phones for emergencies. Parent should communicate effectively with their children about safety, and who to trust. Parents should have an open dialog with their children so that they will not be afraid to inform parents about incidents with peers or adults that they are uncomfortable with.

Zero-tolerance policies also should not be a substitute for careful supervision of students, especially those who are extremely young. While students are attending school, the staff has a responsibility to create a safe and trusting environment. Gastic states, “Students and school adults are critical partners in keeping schools safe. One way that they do this is by working together to reduce the problem of weapons inside of schools" (Gastic 269). This means that cooperation and communication, between both parents, children, and school teachers and administrators, is key to preventing and remedying problems at school. Many of violent acts happen on the school grounds, and these acts may be in remote places around the school campus, and areas that are not often populated. The school officials may not be aware of these violent acts, because the students are too afraid to tell anyone, and it is situations like these where communication is most important, as it alerts school officials and parents to potential danger areas, while also allowing the child to feel safer and request escort home. Although budget cuts are prevalent, communication and technology is an area where changes must be made to protect the student. In the article “Safe and Secure,” Mike Kennedy mentions some common sense approaches to keeping school campuses safe such as limiting the number of exits and entrances to the school, keeping the classrooms, hallways and grounds well lighted, adding two way radios in the class or an intercom system, and providing cell phones to the staff (Kennedy 22). For the most severe cases of school insubordination, the local law enforcement professionals also have a role in keeping schools safe on campus and within a reasonable distance, especially when these crimes happen outside the school, as gangs have a tendency to do.

In a very insightful case study presented in the article “Making Meaning Together: Helping Survivors of Violence to Learn at School”, Martha Bragin, Ph.D., LCSW and Gideon Karl Bragin, M.P.P., spoke passionately about students who experienced or were the perpetrators of violence not only in school, but came from violent homes, and were able to be taught once given a “safe” environment. Children even in difficult learning environments have an innate desire to learn. Children even from poverty stricken areas feel that an education is their ticket to a better future (Bragin and Bragin 52). The teachers in the public school system, as well as for private and charter schools for that matter, have a responsibility in their individual classrooms to make the student feel safe. The teachers control the classroom, not the student. The student needs to feel that the teacher cares about his or her success in the classroom, and not that they are simply being treated as potential rule-breakers at all times. Children learn when they feel they have an advocate in the classroom. Knowledge is a powerful stimulant. When teachers are invested in the students, and are responsive and devise plans based on the individual needs of the specific community, this will go a long way in helping students to learn in difficult environments.

Studies also show that zero-tolerance policies are ineffective. On a public school level, the zero-tolerance policy has not decreased violent behavior. Ron Schachter in his article, “Discipline Gets the Boot” notes “…the disciplinary landscape is starting to change in a growing number of schools, especially those in urban districts, where administrators have taken their cues from high-profile reports questioning the effectiveness and fairness of zero-tolerance practices.” Schachter goes on to say that schools are not any safer today than before these zero-tolerance policies were put into practice. Certainly, the students these policies have a direct impact on have nothing good to say about them. Students feel that their social identity has been compromised. A major complaint among African American students is the distaste with having to wear a uniform to high school. These students feel that wearing a uniform takes away from their individuality, and the ability to make their own personal statement. These students also feel as a result of the zero-tolerance policy, every student is a suspect in the eyes of their teachers and the administrative staff. Students are often not believed even if they are telling the truth (Axelman 43). Regarding zero-tolerance policies, the students do not feel these guidelines result in making them safer.

However, Dunn in his article indicates opposing views. Some students say that they do feel safer with tighter security restrictions (Dunn 50). Similar to airport security, many have accepted the additional measures as an inconvenience, but also a necessary precaution. However, students do feel that certain groups at school are under tighter scrutiny. They feel the atmosphere at school is similar to being in prison. In the LA Unified School District now has “policies requiring that racial groups receive proportional percentages of school penalties” (Dunn 50). This resulted in offenders not being punished, and a seven-year-old being suspended for making a gun shaped from biting into his pastry (Dunn 51). The practice of zero-tolerance as a remedy for safety in school—is impractical.

In order to phase out the concept of zero-tolerance, alternatives to it must be presented and implemented, and already there have been steps taken to do this. A critical step to ensuring school safety is to get the students involved in the process. In Denver, Los Angeles and New York, a program called “Positive Behavior Support (PBS) has been created, replacing the zero-tolerance policy. PBS focuses on paying careful attention to the social and emotional conditions that cause students to behave badly. The second component is to petition Restorative Justice (RJ) to intervene, and prevent negative behavior. RJ also provides more creative and flexible manners on how to approach the disciplinary aspect of negative behavior. Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) is another response to the lack of effective of zero-tolerance (Schachter 30). “The CPS approach, which has helped schools to respond to behaviorally challenging students more effectively, and which has dramatically reduced rates of detention, suspension and expulsion” Schachter notes. These methods have been used successfully. The Los Angeles Unified School District instituted ten policies as alternatives to suspension. Parents participating in the class room with their child, counseling and mini courses (such as ballroom dancing) are some policies being applied successfully. These alternative methods are innovative and effective. These are the new ideas needed on a wider basis in public schools to help change the mindset of students and teachers.

Zero-tolerance policies contradict the very concept of school in the first place: the use of trust and cooperation to solve problems. There must be an open dialog among students, parents, law enforcement and the community. All are components of making and keeping the school environment safe. Unfortunately, today an educator must also deal with the realities of a different environment. But children inherently are the same. Educators should be able to elicit the help of all. The government should continue being involved to create programs and funding for the obstacles faced in today’s learning environment. The programs that have been proven successful should be implemented as efficiently as possible. Parents who can should come to school and assist as needed. Public schools should have mandatory meetings with parents. Parents that are not attending these meetings should face consequences. These consequences should be overseen by a third party to ensure that the home environment is safe. In addition, classes on ethics should be taught beginning with preschool. Children should be taught they are wrong to take something that does not belong to them. Students should learn to hit or strike a peer is not right unless in self-defense.

Zero-tolerance alone is not a remedy for school safety. It is critical that school administrators keep looking for alternative ways to respond to problems. There is no simple or easy solution. But the narrow vision of zero-tolerance as a response to inappropriate behavior will only serve to alienate the very students it is designed to protect. Violence in school impacts everyone, and zero-tolerance policies only serve to make innocent students the victims of an overbearing and overly strict system.

Works Cited

Axelman, Michael J. "African American Youth Speak Out About the Making of Safe High Schools." Preventing School Failure, 2006, pp. 37-44.

Bragin, Martha and and Gideon Karl Bragin. "Making Meaning Together: Helping Survivors of Violence to Learn At School." Journal of Infant, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapy 2010, pp. 47-67.

Dunn, Joshua. "The Prohibition Of Childhood." National Review, vol. 65, no. 20, 2013, pp. 50-51.

Gastic, Billie. "Students and School Adults: Partners In Keeping Schools Safe." Journal of School Health, vol. 80, no. 6, 2010, pp. 269-270.

Kennedy, Mike. "Managing growing security concerns under current budget strains" Safe and Secure, 2010, pp. 16-23.

Schachter, Ron. "Discipline Gets The Boot." District Administration, 2010, pp. 26-32.