The Pros and Cons of Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools

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In 1994, federal legislation required states to expel any student who brought a firearm to school for one year, or lose all federal funding. Many schools have adopted zero tolerance policies to encompass all types of weapons, incidents of bullying, and drugs and alcohol possessions. Zero tolerance policies remain rather controversial and many educators and parents question the effectiveness of such policies.

Support for Zero Tolerance Policies

Many supporters of zero tolerance say that strict policies are necessary to keep the learning environment safe for students. Proponents also report that it doesn’t matter why a particular rule was broken – the fact that it was broken should result in some type of consequence.

Supporters often feel like zero tolerance policies best prepare children for the real world. After all, the police officer usually doesn’t care if you were speeding because you were late for work, you still broke the law. Similarly, your boss may not care what excuse you have for being late, you still might not get paid for the time you missed.

Proponents also say zero tolerance reduces favoritism because there isn’t room for subjectivity. Just because a student is smart or has parents who are involved with the school, there won’t be any room for leniency when the rules are broken.

Zero Tolerance Policy Criticisms

Many critics of zero tolerance policies express concerns that such policies lack “common sense.” For example, there is often little agreement about what constitutes a weapon.

A rubber band or nail clippers may be enough to get students suspended. Similarly, a student in possession of ibuprofen may be expelled for drug possession.

The biggest issue most critics have about zero tolerance policies is that they don’t work. In 2008, the American Psychological Association published a report that concluded, “Zero tolerance has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety.” The task force who conducted the study expressed concern that zero tolerance policies were unnecessarily preventing children from getting a public education and causing many children to face legal charges for relatively minor offenses.

In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics also released a statement criticizing zero tolerance policies. The report expressed concern that such policies are harmful to students because students who receive suspensions and expulsions are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school. Students who are sent home may not have an adult to supervise their activities and they may become more likely to engage in illegal activity.

Alternatives to Zero Tolerance Policies

There are many alternatives to zero tolerance policies that can help keep kids in school while also teaching them valuable life lessons. Of course, violence prevention is one of the best ways to keep everyone in a school system safe.

A 2004 study published in the Journal of School Health found that students who feel a sense of belonging in their schools are less likely to behave violently. Fostering a sense of community is often key in preventing rule violations and behavior problems.

Restorative justice programs and community service may be better interventions for first-time offenders.

Determining consequences on a case-by-case basis can prevent overly harsh consequences. Out-of-school suspensions and expulsions could then be reserved for repeat offenders who pose a real risk to school systems.

Dealing with a Zero Tolerance Policy

If your child’s school has a zero tolerance policy, educate yourself about the rules. Understand what the policy covers and makes certain your child understands the policy. Take a proactive approach to preventing your child from mistakenly breaking the policy by having aspirin in a pocket or a squirt gun in a backpack.

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