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The Real Meaning of Zero Tolerance

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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I like the idea of zero tolerance. Unfortunately, those with social agendas have perverted this concept in both school and law. This injustice can be rectified with common sense and an accurate definition of terms. Let's start by defining what zero tolerance actually means: "No rule violation will be tolerated." This definition has little to do with any consequence or punishment, only that breaking the rule requires action. I strongly believe that all rules should be followed. For me, that's the definition of a rule: "A rule is what is always enforced." However, we can enforce rules without the practice of using a single mandatory remedy.

Values, Rules, and Consequences

I have written extensively that effective classroom management begins with establishing values, which include principles, attitudes, and the reason for rules. While values are too general to enforce and therefore not the same as rules, they are necessary for teachers and students to understand why rules exist. Some examples are:

  • This school will always be safe for everyone.
  • Everyone who enters the school doors will learn.

All rules are related to and developed from values. They are written in terms of observable behavior, and thus can be enforced. Here are examples of rules based on the previous values:

  • Weapons are not allowed in this school.
  • All schoolwork must be done by the person whose name appears on the paper.

A range of consequences follows each rule, allowing the teacher or possibly the student to choose the most effective outcome. Having discretion to choose the most effective consequence is essential because, as every teacher knows, different children require different remedies. Consequences may include contacting parents, restorative justice, planning a new course of action, learning new behavior skills, or helping others. Consequences have the goal of changing future behavior, not punishing the past.

Zero tolerance, as it is currently used, focuses only on turning consequences into mandatory punishments. It completely ignores values and rules. For example, look at what happens when a student brings a weapon to school. Zero tolerance becomes the excuse for throwing away a range of alternative consequences and enforcing only the toughest possible punishment. The student is either given a lengthy suspension or expelled. Recent research has shown that not only are these punishments highly ineffective, but they are also major factors in creating the school-to-prison pipeline. Zero tolerance has morphed into a deceitful attempt at social engineering. Its misuse has led to some bizarre outcomes. For example, a first-grade child was expelled for having an aspirin because of zero tolerance drug rules.

A Lesson in Intolerance

Consider the actual circumstance of "Zack," a high school student who was essentially raising his first-grade brother. His mother had died, and his father was an abusive, violent drunk. One morning the father came home drunk, waving a gun and threatening to kill the boys. When he passed out, Zack picked up the gun, drove his brother to school and turned the gun over to his high-school principal. Zack was later expelled for bringing a gun to school under the zero tolerance provision.

This example shows how mandatory punishment removes the discretion that a range of consequences would provide. Even the criminal justice system is under heavy criticism for draconian mandatory drug sentencing, and will likely be reformed. Should we do away with zero tolerance? No! It should be used correctly. Let’s use Zack's story to see how.

1. Consider the Value

Begin by using the values of the school for determining how to proceed. In Zack's case, the value is safety for all. Did Zack violate the spirit of that value? He handed the gun over to a person of authority. Of course, the gun posed no direct threat under these circumstances, but it posed an indirect threat if it had gone off by accident. Ultimately, Zack followed the spirit of the value by trying to dispose of a dangerous weapon in what for him was a reasonable manner.

2. Consider the Rule

When correctly applied, zero tolerance refers more to the rule, not primarily to the consequence. It simply means that no rule violation will be tolerated. Did Zack break the rule? Yes, he did. Thus a consequence, with consideration of the value, should be implemented.

3. Consider the Consequence

A reasonable and helpful consequence should then be selected from all of the options available. In this case, developing a plan to go directly to the police under similar circumstances is the best option.

Consistency and Fairness

There are two common objections to using zero tolerance in this way. The first objection is that a good excuse gets you off the hook. Yet draconian punishments are often ignored or forgiven for certain students, including athletes, high-achieving students, or those from good homes or the right racial background. A range of consequences allows the school to pick the best one to fit the circumstances without ignoring the rule violation.

The second common objection is that discretion breeds unfairness. This fear can easily be overcome by using one of the most basic and powerful discipline principles: Fair is not equal. We are never fair when we treat all students the same. No one would go to a doctor who gives all of his patients aspirin regardless of their condition because he wants to be fair. No successful teacher treats all students the same. A range of consequences allows the school or teacher to pick the one that has the best chance of working.

Schools set up zero tolerance with only one mandatory consequence because they want a foolproof system -- even a fool can do it. We need zero tolerance for abandoning the use of discretion. That's not foolishness but wisdom.

Does your school have a zero tolerance policy? Please tell us how (or if) it balances values, rules, and consequences.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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Kris Cerone's picture
Kris Cerone
Medical Billing & Coding Career, Technical, Education

My grandson was going to school in an affluent public middle school in a beach city in Orange County, CA. He was bullied repeatedly in the 6th & 7th grade by a group of boys. The school did little in spite of his mother contacting the school and me contacting the principal repeatedly, with plenty of bullying information. Finally in the 8th grade he got mad and pushed one of the bullies after a comment. My grandson was suspended. The next time he pushed another kid down and kicked him. I am not excusing his behavior, it was wrong. The second time was zero tolerance and the principal had him arrested. My grandson was suspended and out of school for six-weeks until the school properly notified each parent (divorced) and held a meeting with both in attendance. The school suggested he be moved to an alternative school. The parents took the school up on the suggestion, gladly. My grandson hated his school.

mleithau's picture

Bullying happens everywhere, from preschool to the workplace, we need to start early and educate our children of the impact that bullying has on everyone involved. Many schools have implemented a zero tolerance policy in their schools to eliminate bullying, along with other undesirable actions. These policies offer one punishment for the crime that is committed regardless of the severity or lack there of. The student who is caught in the act more than likely will get suspended or expelled from school. The schools are trying to show the students that they will not tolerate these negative actions and that the consequences are severe and consistent. However these policies are not eliminating the problem, bullying is still taking place in our schools, worse now then every before. We need to work with the students who are involved, all of them and educate them on how to positively handle the situation. The students doing the bullying need to be find an adult that they feel comfortable with and whom they can talk to about what is going on and what is causing them to act this way. By simply kicking them out of school we are not teaching them how to handle what is going on in their lives, we are simply giving them to another school to deal with. They also are more likely to loose respect and trust of adults which is something that they are truly lacking and need help with. By working with them and finding the root of their problem we can help them eliminate the bullying. The student being bullied needs to also have an adult whom they feel safe and comfortable talking to so that they can report the bullying before it gets too out of control and they can get help with what is going on in their situation before things escalate. We also need to work with the bystanders who are too scared to report the bullying and educate them on how to handle a situation if they come upon bullying, who do they report it to? And ensure them that they will be safe and will not get targeted next for doing the reporting. We need to work with our teachers and other staff members in the schools and give them the training and tools that they need to help our children get out of these situations instead of simply kicking them out.

Matthew Goetz's picture

Zero tolerance and how schools have applied the "Gun-Free Schools Act" have cost thousands of children the education and employment opportunities they deserve.

As local authorities were emboldened by the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, ensnaring more than gun totters, knife wielders and drug dealers. Infractions once the province of school disciplinarians made their way to police records. Zero tolerance kicked into high gear, and stayed there, after youth violence already began a steep decline.

These laws have the potential of imposing strict and harsh punishment upon school children who are not dangerous and who will only suffer detrimental results from a full year expulsion. In addition, and perhaps more irksome, is that these laws do not prevent school violence.

Even for the most effective parents, a child's suspension can have harmful ramifications for the entire family.

Frequent use of suspension alone has no measurable positive deterrent or academic benefit to either the suspended students or to non-suspended (observer) students.

Research on the frequent use of school suspension indicates that, after race and poverty are controlled for, higher rates of suspension correlate with lower achievement scores.

Effective researched based alternatives to zero tolerance are PBIS and more support and training for teachers in classroom management and student engagement.

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