Education Law

What's a "Zero Tolerance" Policy?

Schools across the US have "zero tolerance" policies. You'll find them in elementary schools, high schools and colleges and universities. They're supposed to make the schools safe learning environments by keeping weapons and drugs out of them. As some recent events show, however, perhaps they go too far?

What Are They and Where Did They Come From?

Zero tolerance policies make punishment swift and harsh for all kinds of misbehavior by students. The "misbehavior" may be:

  • Having a weapon, like a gun or knife, on school grounds
  • Having or using drugs or alcohol on school grounds
  • Threatening other students or school staff with physical violence

Punishment can range from anything between detention (or "staying after school"), to a few days' suspension, to expulsion from the school.

You may think that zero tolerance policies started after the Columbine school shooting in 1999. That's when two high school students went on a shooting rampage at their school, killing 13 and injuring 24 students and school staff. The students also killed themselves.

The fact is, though, while Columbine put zero tolerance polices in the spotlight, the policies actually began cropping up about five years before the shooting. In 1994, the federal government passed the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) in reaction to several school shootings that had taken place. Basically, the GFSA requires schools to expel students who carry or possess a gun while they're on school grounds.

Zero Tolerance Today

Today, zero tolerance policies cover much more than guns. And, they may lead to the suspension or expulsion of students for any number of things, such as carrying aspirin or other over-the-counter medications. Some recent - and not so recent - examples of zero tolerance policies in action include:

  • In October 2009, six-year old Zachary Christie was suspended for 45 days, and threatened with placement in a reform school, for carrying a camping utensil to school - a tool with a fork, spoon and small knife blade. After a public outcry, the suspension was lifted and he was able to return to school
  • Again in October 2009, Matthew Whalen, a high school senior and an Eagle Scout, was suspended for 20 days for keeping a 2-inch pocketknife locked in a survival kit in his car. Even after a public outcry, the school refused to lift the suspension
  • There are numerous examples of students being suspended or expelled in the past for bringing to school things like Tylenol, Midol, Listerine, cough drops and toy guns, including a water pistol  One 11-year old student died after an asthma attack because his school's zero tolerance policy barred him from carrying his inhaler 

Do They Work?

It's a hard call. Unfortunately, we don't hear a lot about any successes schools may have in enforcing their policies. How many Columbine-style shootings have been foiled? How many illegal drugs have been kept out of or removed from a school? What we tend to hear about are the instances where zero tolerance policies seem to be taken too far. Perhaps it's time for school districts and school boards to make their success stories more publicly known.

What to Do

If your school has a zero tolerance policy - and it probably does - make sure you know what it covers, and follow the rule. If you're uncertain about whether you child is allowed to have aspirin in her locker, or if he can take in his new Swiss Army knife for show-and-tell, ask the school officials beforehand. If necessary, you may be able to work out some special arrangements.

If you think your school's policy is to harsh or restrictive, offer some alternatives at the school board meeting. One suggestion is that the school adopt a new policy that gives school officials some discretion when it comes to enforcing the rule. That way, a toddler isn't suspended for bringing a water gun to school. Infusing some "common sense" into zero tolerance policies can go a long way in making the school safe while keeping parents and students happy at the same time.

Zero tolerance policies are liked by some because they're applied uniformly and help deter "bad behavior." Break the rule and you'll pay the consequences. Period. No exceptions. Others don't like the policies for the same reasons. Sometimes, suspension or expulsion simply doesn't fit the violation. Everyone agrees that discipline, order, and safety are absolutely critical in the school environment, but the best way to create that environment isn't always clear.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Does a suspension under the zero tolerance policy go onto my child's permanent record? In other words, will colleges that my daughter applies to be able to find out about it? Can it be removed from her record?
  • My son is being suspended because he carried a wood-working tool from the wood shop out into the hall when he got a drink of water. Can we fight the suspension?
  • How do I go about getting the school district's zero tolerance policy changed? Are there special rules I need to follow, and if so, where can I find them?

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