Have Zero Tolerance Policies Gone Too Far?
By Dana Razzano, Internet Reporter

The recent onslaught of highly publicized school shootings has resulted in hundreds of schools nationwide adopting zero tolerance disciplinary policies. While this "take no prisoners" stance may sound like a strong and necessary deterrent to violence in schools, a backlash against the rigidity of zero tolerance rules is brewing.

Last month, the American Bar Association (ABA) adopted a policy to oppose zero tolerance policies in schools because "treating kids equally [in terms of punishment] is not the same as treating kids equitably," said Robert Schwartz, Director of the Juvenile Law Center.

"The problem is that children aren't treated as individuals, but are treated the same way no matter what they've done or who they are [regardless of age]," said Schwartz, who was instrumental in drafting the policy adopted by the ABA.

Treating offenses on a case-by-case basis is restricted by zero tolerance policies, but supporters insist that they reduce the risk of prejudice and favoritism when it comes to punishing students. This universal principle also protects schools from lawsuits by eliminating all perceptions of bias by disciplinarians.

"In truth, there is evidence of prejudice in every system," Schwartz said. He argues that prejudice exists even with zero tolerance policies, because teachers may overlook offenses if they believe the sanctions are too harsh. 

Despite the opposition to zero tolerance policies that some have, not all organizations side with these opinions. "We support zero tolerance policies that protect the safety of endangered children," said Melinda Ulloa, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug Free Schools. 

Zero tolerance policies that take a "holistic approach" to disciplinary actions - such as those with provisions in place in their communities to help offenders and that maintain student access to education - are the kinds of zero tolerance policies the DOE supports, said Ulloa.

According to Ulloa, the behaviors that violate different zero tolerance policies have to be reviewed and decided upon at a local level. "We can't make a blanket statement that the DOE fully supports all zero tolerance policies because that definition varies by district."

Consequences of Zero Tolerance Policies

According to a June 2000 report released by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project on zero tolerance policies, "policymakers, educators and parents should be very concerned with the long term implications of denying educational opportunities to millions of children [through expulsion]." It found that students who are suspended from school are more likely to drop out of school entirely and those who are expelled are more likely to participate in behavior that is damaging to their families and communities.

The report also states that rigid and inflexible discipline policies directly conflict with two major developmental needs of school-aged youths: the development of trusting relationships with adults and the formation of positive attitudes towards fairness and justice. 

"When kids sense that the punishment doesn't fit the offense we are sending the wrong message to youth," said Schwartz. "Kids must believe that the policymakers know the difference between a plastic knife and a switchblade," and disciplinarians need to respond responsibly to each situation. 

"We are not saying to ignore kids that misbehave," said Schwartz, but the ABA believes that zero tolerance policies are not discriminating enough between the chronic troublemakers they were designed to affect and the first time offender caught up in the political red tape. "Serious offenses must be treated seriously," he said. 

In addition to the strict policies in place for offenders, school officials also have to abide by rigid standards. Often times, policies are enacted at a district level and a principal's hands are tied when it comes to enforcing zero tolerance policies, said Dr. Vincent Ferrandino, Executive Director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). "Principals are required to enforce disciplinary procedures or face losing their jobs for insubordination." 

Effective Disciplinary Policies

A school's disciplinary policies should "allow for some discretion for policy makers and shouldn't be too restrictive," in order to avoid "embarrassing situations," said Ferrandino, referring to incidents such as an 11-year old Georgia girl who was suspended because the key chain hanging from her Tweety Bird wallet was classified as a weapon. 

"We see the need to have a policy in place for what behavior is acceptable or not acceptable on the part of the students," said Ferrandino. "It is good for all students to have behavioral rules and understand the rules from an early age." 

Congress passed the zero tolerance Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 in an effort to reduce violence in public schools. Since then, many schools extended zero tolerance policies to include drugs, which have subsequently been interpreted to include aspirin, Midol and Certs as drugs and paper clips, nail files and scissors as weapons. 

Whatever kind of disciplinary policies a school adopts, Ferrandino believes that it is vital for the policies to be "broadly discussed within the community first so that when any kind of issue arises, parents can't ask 'Why weren't we involved?'" 

Though the policy adopted by the ABA holds no legal bearing, "we hope that parents, teachers and school administrators will ask their policymakers to re-examine their zero tolerance policies to see if they are accomplishing what they are intended to do," said Schwartz, who was instrumental in developing the policy adopted by the ABA. 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that after four years of implementation, schools with zero tolerance policies still report a higher level of violent behavior than schools without zero tolerance policies.

Ultimately, "discipline has to be a partnership between home and school," said Ferrandino. "Parents can't let their kids to run wild at home and be subjected to discipline only at school."


To read more of the American Bar Association's report on zero tolerance policies, visit:

For more information on Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, visit:

For more information on the Juvenile Law Center, visit:

For more information on the National Association of Elementary School Principals, visit:

For more information on the U.S. Department of Education, visit: 

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