George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Climate

The Real Meaning of Zero Tolerance

Although many zero tolerance policies mandate a limited range of consequences, we should consider interpreting rules and enforcement through the lens of school values.
September 29, 2015
The same teenage boy is seen sitting in four different chairs, next to each other, waiting in a school building.
Photo credit: johnrudolphmueller via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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.

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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.