Zero tolerance (schools)

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A zero-tolerance policy in schools is a policy of punishing any infraction of a rule, regardless of accidental mistakes, ignorance, or extenuating circumstances. In schools, common zero-tolerance policies concern possession or use of illicit drugs or weapons. Students, and sometimes staff, parents, and other visitors, who possess a banned item for any reason are always (if the policy is followed) to be punished.

In the United States and Canada, zero-tolerance policies have been adopted in various schools and other education venues. Zero-tolerance policies in the United States became widespread in 1994, after federal legislation required states to expel any student who brought a firearm to school for one year, or lose all federal funding.[1]

These policies are promoted as preventing drug abuse and violence in schools. Critics say zero tolerance in schools have resulted in punishments which have been criticised as egregiously unfair against students and teachers, especially in schools with poorly written policies. Consequently, critics describe these policies as zero-logic policies because they treat juveniles the way that adults would be treated[2] — or more harshly, given that children are seldom granted full permission to speak up in their own defence to adults with authority over them. Many people have been critical of zero tolerance policies, claiming that they are overly draconian, provide little if any benefit to anyone, contribute to overcrowding of the criminal justice system, and/or disproportionately target blacks and Latinos.[3]


There is no credible evidence that zero tolerance reduces violence or drug abuse by students.[4] Furthermore, school suspension and expulsion result in a number of negative outcomes for both schools and students.[4]

The American Bar Association has found that the evidence indicates that minority children are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of zero tolerance policies. Analysis of the suspension rate of students show that black females and other racial minorities are suspended at a greater rate.[5]

The American Psychological Association concluded that the available evidence does not support the use of zero tolerance policies as defined and implemented, that there is a clear need to modify such policies, and that the policies create a number of unintended negative consequences,[6][7] including making schools "less safe".[8]

In 2014, a study of school discipline figures was conducted. It was found that suspensions and expulsions as a result of zero tolerance policies have not reduced school disruptions. The study's author stated that "zero tolerance approaches to school discipline are not the best way to create a safe climate for learning".[9]

Another study says that zero tolerance policies are viewed as a quick fix solution for student problems.[10][11][12] While this seems like a simple action-reaction type of situation, it often leaves out the mitigating circumstances that are often the important details in student incidents. Even civilian judges consider mitigating circumstances before passing judgement or sentencing. If zero tolerance policies were applied in adult courtroom scenarios, they would be fundamentally unjust and unconstitutional due to neglecting the laws involving due process, along with cruel and unusual punishments.


The use of zero tolerance policies increased dramatically after the Columbine High School massacre, with principals declaring that safety concerns make them want zero tolerance for weapons. These have led to a large number of disproportionate responses to minor, or technical transgressions, many of which have attracted the attention of the international media. These cases include students being suspended or expelled for such offenses as possession of ibuprofen or Midol (both legal, non-prescription drugs commonly used to treat menstrual cramps and headaches) with permission of the students' parents, keeping pocketknives (small utility knife) in cars, and carrying sharp tools outside of a woodshop classroom (where they are often required materials). In some jurisdictions, zero-tolerance policies have come into conflict with freedom of religion rules already in place allowing students to carry, for example, kirpans.

In the "kids for cash" scandal, judge Mark Ciavarella, who promoted a platform of zero tolerance, received kickbacks for constructing a private prison that housed juvenile offenders, and then proceeded to fill the prison by sentencing children to extended stays in juvenile detention for offenses as minimal as mocking a principal on Myspace, scuffles in hallways, trespassing in a vacant building, and shoplifting DVDs from Wal-Mart. Critics of zero-tolerance policies argue that harsh punishments for minor offenses are normalized. The documentary Kids for Cash interviews experts on adolescent behavior, who argue that the zero tolerance model has become a dominant approach to policing juvenile offenses after the Columbine shooting.[13][14]

In New York City, Carmen Fariña, head of the New York City Department of Education has restricted school suspension by principals.[15] Similarly, the Los Angeles Unified school board has voted to ban suspensions for "willful defiance" which were mostly used against students from racial minorities.[16][17]

Media attention

Media attention has proven embarrassing to school officials, and the embarrassment has resulted in changes to state laws as well as to local school policies. One school board member gave this reason for changes his district made to their rigid policy: "We are doing this because we got egg on our face."[18]

  • A student at Sandusky High School in Sandusky, Ohio, was suspended for 90 days and flunked, after school authorities searched him for drugs in September 1999, and found a broken pocketknife. He had used the knife to clean his golfing cleats.[19]
  • The Christina School District in Newark, Delaware, has experienced multiple highly publicized cases of zero tolerance:
    • After bringing a Cub Scouts dinner knife to school to eat his lunch, a six-year-old boy was ordered to attend an alternative school for students with behavioral problems for nine weeks.[18] After a media uproar, the school board voted unanimously to reduce punishments for kindergartners and first-graders who take weapons to school to a 3-5 day mandatory suspension,[8][20] retaining the original definition of "weapons".[21]
    • A third-grader was expelled for a year because her grandmother sent a birthday cake, and a knife for cutting the cake, to school. The teacher used the knife to cut the cake, and then reported her to the authorities as having a dangerous weapon. The expulsion was overturned and led to a state law that gave districts the ability to, "on a case-by-case basis, modify the terms of the expulsion."[22]
    • Other cases include a straight-A student who was ordered to attend "reform school" after a classmate dropped a pocket knife in his lap,[22] and in 2007, when a girl was expelled for using a utility knife to cut paper for a project.[22]
  • Earlier in 2009, an Eagle Scout in New York was suspended for 20 days for having an emergency supply kit in his car that included a pocket knife.[23]
  • A kindergartner in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was suspended in March 2010 for making a finger gun.[24]
  • Another kindergartner, in Pennsylvania, was suspended for 10 days in January 2013 for referring to "shooting" a friend with a Hello Kitty bubble making gun.[25] The suspension was reduced to two days after the parent met with school officials.
  • A second grader in Baltimore, Maryland, was suspended in March 2013 for biting a Pop-Tart into the shape of a mountain, which school officials mistook for a gun.[26][27]
  • A freshman at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, was suspended for a week in September 2015 after he put a digital alarm clock in a pencil box, and took it to his school to show a teacher. When the device beeped while in one class, the student was suspended and detained on suspicion of creating a hoax bomb.[28][29]


Proponents of punishment- and exclusion-based philosophy of school discipline policies claim that such policies are required to create an appropriate environment for learning.[9][30] This rests on the assumption that strong enforcement can act as a psychological deterrent to other potentially disruptive students.[9]

The policy assumption is that inflexibility is a deterrent because, no matter how or why the rule was broken, the fact that the rule was broken is the basis for the imposition of the penalty. This is intended as a behavior modification strategy: since those at risk know that it may operate unfairly, they may be induced to take even unreasonable steps to avoid breaking the rule. This is a standard policy in rule- and law-based systems around the world on "offenses" as minor as traffic violations to major health and safety legislation for the protection of employees and the environment.[31]

Disciplinarian parents view zero-tolerance policies as a tool to fight corruption.[32] Under this argument, if subjective judgment is not allowed, most attempts by the authority person to encourage bribes or other favors in exchange for leniency are clearly visible.


Critics of zero-tolerance policies in schools say they are part of a school-to-prison pipeline [33] that over-polices children with behavioural problems, treating their problems as criminal justice issues rather than educational and behavioural problems. Students that may previously have been given short school suspensions before the implementation of policies are now sent to juvenile courts.[34]

Critics of zero-tolerance policies frequently refer to cases where minor offenses have resulted in severe punishments. Typical examples include the honor-roll student being expelled from school under a "no weapons" policy while in possession of nail clippers,[35] or for possessing "drugs" like cough drops and dental mouthwash or "weapons" like rubber bands.[1]

A related criticism is that zero-tolerance policies make schools feel like a jail or a prison. Furthermore zero-tolerance policies have been struck down by U.S. courts[36] and by departments of education.[37]

Another criticism is that the zero-tolerance policies have actually caused schools to turn a blind eye to bullying, resulting in them refusing to solve individual cases in an attempt to make their image look better. The zero-tolerance policy also punishes both the attacker and the defender in a fight, even when the attacker was the one who started the fight unprovoked.

A particularly dismaying hypothesis about zero tolerance policies is that they may actually discourage some people from reporting criminal and illegal behavior, for fear of losing relationships, and for many other reasons. That is, ironically, zero tolerance policies may be ineffective in the very purpose for which they were originally designed.[38]

As schools develop responses to online bullying, schools that have overly harsh approaches to zero tolerance policies may increasingly police speech of students in their own time, that would normally be protected by free speech laws.[39]

The American Bar Association opposes "zero tolerance policies that mandate either expulsion or referral of students to juvenile or criminal court, without regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense or the students [sic] history."[40]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Zero-tolerance policies lack flexibility". 
  2. "Zero Tolerance is Zero Intelligence". Delaware Liberal. 6 October 2009. 
  3. "LA schools to end zero-tolerance policies and criminalization of students". 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Russell J. Skiba Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice Policy Research Report #SRS2 August, 2000
  6. Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, December 2008.
  7. Zero Tolerance Policies: no substitute for good judgment Summary of the APA Task Force Report at
  8. 8.0 8.1 Nuckols, Ben (13 October 2009). "Delaware board likely to tweak zero-tolerance rule". Associated Press. [dead link]
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Skiba, R. J. (2014). The Failure of Zero Tolerance. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 22(4), 27-33.
  10. "Zero-tolerance still in use despite lack of evidence". Educational Research Newsletters & Webinars. 
  11. Martinez, S. (2009). A system gone berserk: How are zero-tolerance policies really affecting schools? Preventing School Failure,53(3), 153-157.
  12. Ginette D. Roberge, PhD (2012). "From Zero Tolerance to Early Intervention: The Evolution of School Anti-bullying Policy" (PDF). 
  13. Daryl Khan (10 February 2014). "A Plot with a Scandal: A Closer Look at ‘Kids for Cash’ Documentary". Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. 
  14. Mark McPherson (20 March 2015). "Kids for Cash Review". Cinema Paradiso Blog. 
  15. "Suspension Rules Altered in New York City’s Revision of School Discipline Code". New York Times. 13 Feb 2015. 
  16. "L.A. Unified bans suspension for 'willful defiance'". Los Angeles Times. 14 May 2013. 
  17. Carly Berwick (17 May 2015). "Zeroing out Zero Tolerance". The Atlantic. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Urbina, Ian (13 October 2009). "After Uproar on Suspension, District Will Rewrite Rules". The New York Times. 
  19. Petras, Kathryn; Petras, Ross (2003). Unusually Stupid Americans (A compendium of all American Stupidity). New York: Villard Books. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0-9658068-7-1. 
  20. Nuckols, Ben (14 October 2009). "Delaware 1st grader has 45-day suspension lifted". Associated Press. [dead link]
  21. "Christina Board Will Consider Amendment to Student Code of Conduct for Youngest Students" (Press release). Christina School District. 13 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-14. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Urbina, Ian (12 October 2009). "It’s a Fork, It’s a Spoon, It’s a ... Weapon?". The New York Times. 
  23. Lott, Maxim (2009-10-13). "New York Eagle Scout Suspended From School for 20 Days for Keeping Pocketknife in Car". Fox News. Retrieved 2015-09-22. 
  24. McVicar, Brian (March 4, 2010). "Ionia kindergartner suspended for making gun with hand". The Grand Rapids Press. Ionia: Booth Newspapers. Retrieved 11 August 2010. 
  25. DeMarche, Edmund (19 January 2013). "Pennsylvania girl, 5, suspended for threatening to shoot girl with pink toy gun that blows soapy bubbles". FoxNews. 
  26. "School suspends 7-year-old for shaping breakfast pastry into 'shape of a gun'". Daily Mail. London. March 2, 2013. 
  27. "Josh Welch 7, Suspended For Shaping Pastry Into Gun Shape". MSN News. Retrieved June 25, 2014. 
  28. Selk, Avi (September 15, 2015). "Irving 9th-grader arrested after taking homemade clock to school: 'So you tried to make a bomb?'". The Dallas Morning News. Archived from the original on September 16, 2015. Retrieved September 20, 2015. 
  29. "Irving Police Chief Defends Response to Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock". NY Times. Retrieved September 20, 2015. 
  30. Noguera, Pedro A. Preventing and Producing Violence: A Critical Analysis of Responses to School Violence Harvard Educational Review, Summer 1995, pp. 189–212.
  31. Ghezzi, Patti. "Zero tolerance for zero tolerance" Atlanta Constitution, March 20, 2006.
  32. Takyi-Boadu, Charles. "On Zero-Tolerance Corruption not Province of Politicians." The Ghanaian Chronicle, March 16, 2006.
  34. Elizabeth S Scott; Laurence D Steinberg (30 June 2009). Rethinking Juvenile Justice. Harvard University Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-674-04336-7. 
  35. Final Report, Bi Partisan Working Group on Youth Violence 106th Congress, February 1996 Zero Tolerance Policy Report, American Bar Association
  36. "Pensacola honor students win zero tolerance drug ruling" article of the AP/Bradenton Herald, Sept. 8, 2002 at archives Sept. 2002 pt. III
  37. Rhode Island Officials Rule School Can't Censor Teen's Yearbook Photo (1/19/2007)
  38. Rowe, Mary and Bendersky, Corinne, "Workplace Justice, Zero Tolerance and Zero Barriers: Getting People to Come Forward in Conflict Management Systems," in Negotiations and Change, From the Workplace to Society, Thomas Kochan and Richard Locke (editors), Cornell University Press, 2002


  • American Bar Association. Zero Tolerance Policy Report, 2001 []
  • Steven M. Cox; John E. Wade (1 January 1989). The Criminal Justice Network: An Introduction. W.C. Brown. ISBN 978-0-697-03177-8. 
  • Meernik, J. (2003). Victor's justice or the law? The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 47(2), 140-162.
  • Robinson, M. (2002). Justice Blind? Ideals and Realities of American Criminal Justice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Rowe, Mary and Bendersky, Corinne, "Workplace Justice, Zero Tolerance and Zero Barriers: Getting People to Come Forward in Conflict Management Systems," in Negotiations and Change, From the Workplace to Society, Thomas Kochan and Richard Locke (editors), Cornell University Press, 2002
  • Sherman, L., D., Gottfredson, D. MacKenzie, J. Eck, P. Reuter & S. Bushway. (1997). "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising." [1]
  • Snider, Laureen. (2004) "Zero Tolerance Reversed: Constituting the Non-Culpable Subject in Walkerton" in What is a Crime? Defining Criminal Conduct in Contemporary Canadian Society. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, and Montreal: Laval University Press (French translation), 2004: 155-84.

External links