Zero tolerance policies in schools first became popular in the 1980's, when they were first being used for military purposes. Zero tolerance policies are those which make violence, drugs, weapons, and sexual harassment strictly prohibited in schools. Punishment would be very severe, immediate, and with no chance for redemption or self-correction, even for the smallest infraction, ranging from long after school detentions to expulsion and mandatory attendance to rehab facilities. Schools who create and enforce these policies often have good intentions, and have the student's best interests in mind, yet the policies are often poorly planned, and lack much needed common sense. Many school zero tolerance policies make no room for exceptions, and refuse to evaluate many harmless situations.
Here are some examples in which innocent and bright schoolchildren have dealt with the wrath of their schools' zero tolerance policies:
- A 14-year old boy, whose father and stepfather were serving in the military was expelled for drawing a stick figure picture of the US military fighting the Taliban. The drawing was seen as highly inappropriate and destructive to the learning environment.
- An 11-year old boy died at school due to a severe asthma attack because his school's zero tolerance policy regarding drugs prohibited him from possessing his inhaler on school grounds.
- A six-year old boy in the Christina School District was expelled for bringing a Cub Scouts dinner knife to school to cut his food. The school associated this small knife with rape and arson. The school later agreed to reduce the punishment for 5 and 6 year olds with such weapons to a mandatory 3-5 day suspension.
- A 13-year old girl who was a straight-A honor roll student was expelled and required to attend a 9-week boot camp session after bringing a bottle of cherry 7-up with a few drops of alcohol to school and serving it to 11 people. The people she served it to were also expelled, half of them not knowing that the drink contained alcohol. Those who did not know had their expulsion lifted. The girl's parents were outraged, and the girl felt the punishment was much too harsh.
- A Kindergarten student was suspended for making a finger gun at school. The school thought he was armed with a dangerous weapon.
While it certainly helps to keep drugs, violence, and weapons out of schools. Administrators must learn common sense when applying these policies. They need to evaluate the situation and look at the context, and decide whether the situation is truly dangerous. Using extreme punishments for harmless situations not only destroys students' lives, but it takes attention away from students who cause real trouble.
Zero tolerance policies need not be abolished, but they require some revision and rethinking. Zero tolerance policies need to be slapped with some common sense. School administrators must put effort into evaluating the context and the severity of situations, and must not jump to quick and ineffective resolutions.
Students must be given a chance to correct their mistakes, if they are even making a mistake in the first place.