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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Zero Tolerance is Not Elementary

By Peter DeWitt — July 26, 2011 2 min read
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Public policy towards children has moved towards treating them more like adults and ways that increasingly mimic the adult criminal justice system. The most recent version of this movement is so-called "zero tolerance" in schools, where theories of punishment that were once directed to adult criminals are now applied to first graders (Martin, 2001).

When we think of zero tolerance in an elementary school, there are most likely many things that come to mind. Most elementary schools do not have to worry about students bringing weapons in an effort to hurt their peers, although we all understand that the potential for this to happen is always there. However, those of us who are elementary school administrators do have to worry about zero tolerance policies because we are bound to them in the same way that our middle and high school administrative colleagues are bound to them.

In most schools our main concern is safety. Our second most important focus is providing students with the proper foundation for learning before we send them to the next level. We understand that the realities that children leave our buildings to go home to may be very different than the ones we went home to when we were younger.

Sadly, many of us who have taught or been an administrator for a long time know that there are many children who do not have the ideal lifestyle at home. Some of our young students have their own house keys and have to go home to an empty house or apartment because their parents are working and cannot be there to greet them.

Some children grow up in an environment where vulgar language is a part of their parents’ daily vocabulary and they learn that screaming at one another is the primary way to communicate which sets the foundation for how children think before they ever enter our school systems, and it has an effect on their behavior every day.

We have students who fail to understand that their home behavior, or the behavior they see at home, may be offensive to those of us at school, and we need to teach them right from wrong. Zero tolerance policies do not always provide us with an ideal teaching tool to deal with bad behavior; they only guide us in punishing students.

Zero tolerance is theoretically directed at students who misbehave intentionally, yet it also applies to those who misbehave as a result of emotional problems, or other disabilities, or who merely forget what is in their pocket after legitimate non-school activities. It treats alike first graders and twelfth graders (Martin, 2001).

We need to offer alternatives to zero tolerance policies that take common sense into account. A student who brings in a weapon to hurt someone deserves a different punishment than an elementary student who brings in a plastic toy gun. Zero tolerance policies should be changed from giving the administrator in charge no other alternative, to giving the administrator the leverage they need to make a decision that makes sense. From an elementary perspective, the administrator’s job is to help a child change a behavior. We look at their intent behind the behavior and find a fitting punishment.

Having discipline procedures that allow students to make mistakes and learn from them is an important part of any disciplinary policy, and a necessary part of a school system. If we are really going to get to the heart of an issue and to teach students how to change a behavior, we need to do more than suspend them. We must teach them where the behavior came from, why it needs to change, and that people can make mistakes and move forward in a positive direction. Zero tolerance should not be used for all discipline issues, only the ones that warrant such policies.

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Click here to see a segment on Zero Tolerance that Peter did with anchor/reporter Elaine Houston on WNYT (NBC affiliate).

Bazemore, Gordon, & Umbreit, Mark (2001) A Comparison of Four Restorative Conferencing Models, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, pp. 1-20 Glanzer, Perry L. (2005) The Limited Character Education of Zero Tolerance Policies: An Alternative Moral Vision for Discipline, Journal of research in character education pp. 97-107, Martin, Ralph C. (2001) Zero Tolerance Policy, American bar association journal, Washington, DC: American Bar Association

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.