What Is a Zero Tolerance Policy?

A zero tolerance policy is a policy that requires authority figures to have no tolerance for the behavior in question. In schools, zero tolerance behaviors might be things such as drug use, alcohol use, selling drugs, carrying weapons, sexual harassment, or physical assault.

In the case of drugs, the school will notify teachers, parents, and students that the school has a zero tolerance policy for drug use and the students and parents are officially put on notice that any student caught with drugs on school grounds will be expelled. If at some point during the school year a student is caught in possession of or using drugs on school property, he will be immediately expelled.

Many school systems have adopted zero tolerance policies for bullying, and that is a step in the right direction; but critics of zero tolerance suggest that a zero tolerance policy that includes the highest possible consequence for any and all bullying behavior is inherently unfair.

Should an aggressive, chronic-offender bully receive the same punishment as a first-time offender? What if the offender is a special needs student who is incapable of understanding the ramifications of his behavior? Or what if that same special needs student is tricked by other students into bullying a classmate? What if a transfer student, unaware of the existing policy, bullies a student? Do all of these students deserve to be immediately expelled?

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According to the American Psychological Association's Zero Tolerance Task Force Report, “Before the age of 15, adolescents appear to display psychosocial immaturity in at least four areas: poor resistance to peer influence, attitudes toward and perception of risk, future orientation, and impulse control.” This developmental immaturity leads many researchers to discourage the use of zero tolerance policies for teen lapses in judgment.

There have been many controversial and well-publicized cases of zero tolerance policies gone awry. Students have been suspended or expelled for taking Tylenol or Advil during the school day (even when mom or dad gave the okay); students have been suspended or expelled for things like having plastic knives in their lunch boxes or nail clippers in their purse; and students have been suspended and expelled for essays they wrote or pictures they drew that contained hostile words or violent images.

This is not to say that zero tolerance policies are inherently bad, but it is important to carefully consider whether or not zero tolerance punishment allows administrators the leeway to exercise fairness and common sense. Every instance of bullying should have some consequence, but that doesn't mean it is fair for every offense to be met with the harshest punishment possible.

A much more effective anti-bullying policy would have zero tolerance for bullying, but allow for graduated sanctions to be imposed (except in extreme cases where there is concern for the safety of the victim).

Some schools with zero tolerance policies have been subjected to lawsuits claiming that the policy is unfair. The parents who file these lawsuits and the critics of zero tolerance punishment believe that a one-size-fits-all or all-or-nothing approach to disciplining children goes against the basic proponents of educating children. They believe that zero tolerance is excessively harsh and children are treated as criminals without further investigation into any existing extenuating circumstances.

The only thing considered with a zero tolerance approach is, “Did this student engage in behavior that is defined as bullying?” If the answer is yes, the punishment is applied. Supporters of zero tolerance policies say this is exactly the point; that if a student bullies another student despite the zero tolerance policy, that student should be punished. If the punishment required is expulsion, then so be it.

There is a middle ground that needs to be considered. Many states have already instituted zero tolerance policies related to bullying. Schools that have these policies should be applauded and supported; but the administration at these schools must be given the opportunity to create graduated, non-punitive sanctions that give administrators the ability to exercise fairness and sound judgment on a case-by-case basis.

Many kids who bully can be taught the error of their ways through education and intervention. And those who don't respond to the graduated school-based sanctions will eventually escalate to the highest possible punishment — expulsion. This way the school isn't arbitrarily punishing students with extreme consequences for every offense, yet those students who do not, will not, or cannot change are eventually removed from the community.

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