Zero Tolerance: The Remedy for School Safety?

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School safety has become an issue in the twenty-first century. Today’s learning environment is impeded by the additional burden of how to keep students safe in the current learning environment. This is a challenge not only recognized by students but is at the forefront of any school administrator concerned about the school’s academic climate. 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.

In a response to violent episodes in major cities across the United States, and in other countries as well, a zero-tolerance policy has been implemented in many elementary and high schools. Zero tolerance meant the implementation of dress codes, metal detectors at school entrances, immediate removal of students who perpetrate violence or engage in gang activity, searching students and their property, and the use of security guards to monitor student behavior (Axelman 38). 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.

The words zero tolerance have a somewhat negative connotation. No matter what the environment, these two words are almost never welcomed. Zero, if you look at it numerically, is before the positive number one, and anything below it is negative. A zero temperature is associated with being very cold. The word tolerance comes from the word tolerate which can mean that it is something that can be dealt with for a limited time, but not indefinitely. To tolerate does not necessarily bring about an internal change. This is why the term zero tolerance immediately causes a defensive mechanism to occur in most, without even quantifying what it is pertaining too, it is known immediately that it is restrictive.

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. The leading television series are those depicting murder and violence. Even cartoons often written by cynical adults depict violence and have 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. Neighbors’ raising each other’s children with correction and love is a thing of the past. Technology has expanded the 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.

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 how to keep students safe in their current learning environment. With over ten mass public shootings in 2012-2013(Timeline of Worldwide School and Mass Shootings) safety is at the forefront of any school administrator. 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.

When school safety is discussed, what are the defining issues? What it’s not is limiting the playfulness of six and seven-year-old children. Bubble-blowers, fingers, and pastries: All have led to the suspension of five-, six-, and seven-year-old miscreants from America’s schools. Their offenses? Using these implements as imaginary guns. 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).

Now that the judicial system is involved in how our 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. Many students, who before these onerous policies were enacted, are now receiving disciplinary blemishes on the school records.

Another driving force behind a zero-tolerance policy, more specific to urban landscapes and depressed communities, is 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. Students, who should be focusing on academics, are worried about what color is appropriate to wear, and how to get home safely. 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.

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. 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. 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.

While students are attending school, the staff has a responsibility to create a safe and trusting environment. Gastic stated, “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). Many of the violent acts happen on the school grounds. 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. Although budget cuts are prevalent, this is an area where changes must be made to protect the student. In the article “Safe and Secure,” Mike Kennedy mentioned 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).

The local law enforcement professionals also have a role in keeping schools safe on campus and within a reasonable distance. There are sacrifices all must make. 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, but 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 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. 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.

On a public school level, the zero-tolerance policy has not decreased violent behavior. Ron Schachter in his article, “Discipline Get the Boot” notes that “…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, students for whom 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 of 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). 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 in order to combat the complaints of discipline targeted because of ethnicity, the district now has “policies requiring that racial groups receive proportional percentages of school penalties” (Dunn). This resulted in offenders not being punished, and a seven-year-old being suspended for making a gun-shaped from biting into pastry (Dunn). This is ridiculous. Therefore, the practice of zero tolerance as a remedy for safety in school—is impractical.

A critical remedy to 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) have been implemented replacing the zero-tolerance policy. PBS focuses on paying careful attention to the social and emotional conditions that cause a student to behave badly. The second component is to enact 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 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 classroom with their child, counseling and mini-course (such as ballroom dancing) are some policies being implemented 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.

There must be an open dialog among students, parents, law enforcement and the community. All are components of making a keeping the school environment safe. Everyone involved has to care about the welfare of the students. Unfortunately, a good deal of the responsibility falls on the educator. This may be unfair, but is a fact. In the past, the educator has always had the responsibility of being more than merely being a teacher, although that in itself is a huge matter. Teaching has never been a job, but a calling. Countless students over the years have often referred back to a specific teacher they had in the third, fifth or twelfth grade that changed their destiny.

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. For example, the D.A.R.E. program has been successful at steering children away from substance use.

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 have 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. When the prayer was removed from school and subsequent religious training, the understanding of what is wrong and right took a back seat. Many children are not taught this in the home.

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 the inappropriate behavior will only serve to alienate the very students it is designed to protect. Violence in school impacts everyone. Many ideas, steps, and platforms are critical to changing the learning environment for students.

Works Cited

Axelman, Michael J. "African American Youth Speak Out About the Making of Safe High Schools." Preventing School Failure (2006): 37-44. Web. 4 Feb 2014.

Bragin, Martha and Gideon Karl Bragin. "Making Meaning Together: Helping Survivors of Violence to Learn At School." Journal of Infant, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapy (2010): 47-67. Web. 4 Feb 2014.

Dunn, Joshua. "The Prohibition Of Childhood." National Review 65.20 (2013): 50-51. Web. 4 Feb 2014.

Gastic, Billie. "Students and School Adults: Partners In Keeping Schools Safe." Journal of School Health 80.6 (2010): 269-270. Web. 4 Feb 2014.

Kennedy, Mike. "Managing growing security concerns under current budget strains" Safe and Secure (2010): 16-23. Web. 4 Feb 2014

Schachter, Ron. "Discipline Gets The Boot." District Administration (2010): 26-32. Web 4 Feb 2014

Timeline of Worldwide School and Mass Shootings. (2012): Web. 4 Feb 2014