Zero Tolerance

What is zero tolerance?

“Zero tolerance” refers to the practice of automatic expulsion of students for violations of school safety rules. Skiba and Peterson (1999) traced the emergence of zero tolerance policies to personnel drug abatement efforts of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Customs Service. The notion of absolute sanctions against drug use in the military became a model for schools that was applied to violence as well as drug use. In recent years, anxious educators have relied increasingly on zero tolerance policies as a simple, albeit draconian, response to student threats of violence that relieved them of the need to exercise judgment and make reasoned decisions in response to student infractions.

In 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act required that schools expel for one calendar year any student found to be in possession of a firearm at school. Although the law permitted local school districts to modify the expulsion on a case-by-case basis, this provision was frequently overlooked in favor of less flexible policies that mandated automatic expulsion for all infractions. In addition, many schools expanded zero tolerance well beyond the arena of firearms or even lethal weapons. For example, the prohibition of weapons in many school divisions often included toy weapons and objects that appeared to be weapons. In one case, a ten-year-old boy was expelled from elementary school because he brought to school a 1” plastic toy pistol that was an accessory to his G.I. Joe action figure. The boy discovered he had the tiny toy in his pocket when he checked to see if he had his lunch money (Seattle Times, January 8, 1997). Skiba and Peterson (1999) documented numerous cases of excessive punishment, which they referred to as “the dark side of zero tolerance.” Among the examples they cited:

  • A five-year-old in California was expelled after he found a razor blade at his bus stop and carried it to school and gave it to his teacher.
  • A nine-year-old in Ohio was suspended for having a 1” knife in a manicure kit.
  • A twelve-year-old in Rhode Island was suspended for bringing a toy gun to school.
  • A seventeen-year-old in Chicago was arrested and subsequently expelled for shooting a paper clip with a rubber band.

A 2000 report by the Advancement Project and The Civil Rights Project of Harvard University (Opportunities suspended: Devastating consequences of zero tolerance and school discipline) pointed out that zero tolerance policies were originally intended to apply only to serious criminal behavior involving firearms or illegal drugs, but have been extended to cover many more types of behavior and circumstances. “Zero Tolerance has become a philosophy that has permeated our schools; it employs a brutally strict disciplinary model that embraces harsh punishment over education” (p 3). The report raised concern that zero tolerance policies were resulting in high levels of suspension and expulsion of minority students. In 1998, more than 3.1 million students were suspended from school; although African-American children represent 17% of the public school enrollment, they constituted 32% of the out-of-school suspensions.

An article in the American Bar Association Journal (Tebo, 2000) sharply criticized zero tolerance policies as making “zero sense.” Tebo contended that the central problem with zero tolerance policies is that all threats of violence are treated as equally dangerous and deserving of the same consequences. For example, Ohio state law requires every school district to have a zero tolerance policy that makes no exceptions (Tebo, 2000). These kinds of policies provide no latitude for school authorities to consider the seriousness of the threat or degree of risk posed by the student’s behavior. Tebo (2000) described cases in which Ohio schools imposed severe consequences on students whom they recognized did not pose a danger to others, such as a student suspended for displaying a school election poster that contained humorous threatening language in parody of a popular movie. A Pennsylvania court overturned one school’s expulsion of a seventh grade student who inadvertently brought his Swiss Army knife to school, but in almost all cases the courts have been unwilling to interfere with zero tolerance practices in schools (Tebo, 2000). In 2001 the American Bar Association passed a resolution condemning zero tolerance:

“ …the ABA opposes, in principle, 'zero tolerance' policies that have a discriminatory effect, or mandate either expulsion or referral of students to juvenile or criminal court, without regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense or the student's history.”

We believe that schools do not need zero tolerance policies that involve automatic suspension or expulsion. Schools can take a zero tolerance stand against weapons, yet recognize that all weapons violations are not the same. Common sense can prevail. Shooting a child with a paper clip is not the same as threatening a child with a knife. If schools implement a threat assessment approach, they can investigate weapons violations and determine whether the student actually posed a threat to others. Accidental violations of school weapons policies should receive different consequences than violations that involve intent to harm someone. See the Threat Assessment Research page for more information about threat assessment as an alternative to zero tolerance.

More examples of extreme zero tolerance cases:

LONGMONT, CO (April, 1999) -- A 10-year-old student was expelled when she turned in the small cutting knife her mother had placed in her lunchbox to cut her apple. (USA TODAY)

ALEXANDRIA, LA -- A second-grader was expelled for bringing her grandfather's gold-plated pocket watch to school because the watch had a tiny knife attached. (USA TODAY)

NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia (October, 1996) -- A kindergartner was suspended for bringing a beeper from home and showing it to classmates during a field trip. (CNN)

FAIRBORN, Ohio (October, 1996) -- A 13-year-old honor student was suspended from school for 10 days for accepting two Midol tablets from a classmate. (CNN)

FORT MYERS, Fla.(May, 2001) -- An 18-year-old senior and National Merit Scholar was suspended and charged with a felony count of possessing a weapon when a kitchen knife was found on the floor of her car while she was in class. (FOX NEWS)

Zero Tolerance Links:

The Dark Side of Zero Tolerance: Can Punishment Lead to Safe Schools? - A zero tolerance article by Russ Skiba and Reece Peterson.

Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practices - Another zero tolerance article by Russ Skiba.