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Why School Zero Tolerance Policies Are Harmful

Updated on December 26, 2015

After the killings at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School many schools have become more concerned about violence prevention. Many have implemented zero tolerance policies as a means to deal with potential threats. The policies are coming under increasing attack due to a steady stream of stories about kids getting into trouble, being required to see psychologists, or even being arrested for behavior that's often harmless. Resorting to zero tolerance, and not allowing teachers and principals to use their own judgment on a case-by-case basis, is leading to a backlash and creating even more frustration with the public education system.

A recent case in Alabama involved a 5 year old being told to sign a Suicide/Homicide Safety Contract after she pointed a crayon at another student and said pow pow. The contract asked if she had 'current thoughts of suicide' and the 'frequency of suicidal ideas.' The problem is few 5 year olds know what suicide is and they have little understanding of death in general. The school asked her parents to have her seen by a psychiatrist. Just about every kid in the world has pointed a pretend gun at another kid and said pow pow. It's hardly behavior that requires psychiatric intervention.

Early elementary-age kids are too young to understand why pointing a pretend gun at someone is troubling because they know nothing about gun violence. They're mindlessly imitating behaviors they've seen elsewhere with no understanding of what they mean. Kids are not mini-adults with an adult's level of understanding and shouldn't be treated that way. A more sensible approach would have been to talk to this girl, and her whole class, and explain that this behavior isn't allowed in school.

Many schools are becoming more oppressive with often harmless behavior leading to suspension or even arrests
Many schools are becoming more oppressive with often harmless behavior leading to suspension or even arrests

Another case in South Carolina involved a high school student who was arrested for writing a story about buying a gun and shooting a dinosaur. The 16 year old apparently wrote:

"I killed my neighbor’s pet dinosaur. I bought the gun to take care of the business."

His mother felt like this should have been the reaction:

"If the school would have called me and told me about the paper and asked me to come down and discussed everything and, at least, get his point-of-view on the way he meant it. I never heard from the school, never. They never called me."

However, I think the school should have made it clear to all students that writing about guns or violence is forbidden. English teachers should make that clear when handing out writing assignments. Students are often punished or arrested for violations of rules they were never told existed.

Even little kids can be treated as dangerous threats under zero tolerance policies
Even little kids can be treated as dangerous threats under zero tolerance policies

Education World in a piece called "Stop Tolerating Zero Tolerance" came up with a list of incidences that have occurred in schools around the country due to these policies. This is just a few of the incidences they mentioned.

  • In Wisconsin a 6th grade honor student was suspended because he brought a kitchen knife to school to cut an onion for a science project. The principal wanted him expelled.
  • Two 2nd graders in Connecticut were arrested for saying they wanted to 'kill' someone despite 'kill' being a common figure of speech.
  • In Colorado, a 5th grade girl was arrested for sexual harassment for asking a boy if he liked her.
  • In Pennsylvania, a kindergartener was suspended for bringing a toy ax to school as part of his firefighter Halloween costume
  • In Texas, a 16 year-old honor student was expelled when a security guard saw a kitchen knife on the floor of his car. The knife had fallen onto the floor when the student took some donations to Goodwill and he was likely unaware it was even in his car. The school initially demanded that he spend a year in a juvenile-justice education program. However, after protests they changed his punishment to a five-day suspension.

Teachers and principals need to use common sense
Teachers and principals need to use common sense

According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP):

"zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices"

They also say minority students and those with disabilities are punished more often and more harshly. Suspensions and expulsions have increased and may be a cause of increasing dropout rates. The American Bar Association has also asked for an end to these policies due to students who pose no threat having to go through the criminal justice system. Yet for all this focus on harsher punishments and zero tolerance, violence in schools is way down. And it was falling long before these policies went into effect.

"School violence in the U.S. reached a peak in 1993, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That year, there were 42 homicides by students in total, as well as 13 "serious violent crimes" — rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault — per 1,000 students at primary and secondary schools. By 2010, the latest figures available, those numbers had decreased to two homicides and four violent crimes per 1,000 students."
-- NPR, Violence In Schools: How Big A Problem Is It?

Violent crime in schools and in American society in general has decreased significantly since the early 1990s. Yet it's at this time that many American schools are choosing to go overboard and overreact to minor incidents. In "Stop Tolerating Zero Tolerance" Education World asks for the end of zero tolerance because:

"It treats children as adult offenders without the presumption of innocence, disrupts the lives and educations of good students nearly as often as it does those of troubled students, and treats all covered offenses and all students equally, regardless of age, intent, past behavior, or magnitude of the offense."

Schools need to return to using common sense to deal with incidences involving otherwise well-behaved and nonthreatening students.


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