School Climate & Safety Opinion

A Different Kind of Zero Tolerance

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 24, 2013 4 min read
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Zero tolerance policies were put in place in the 1990’s. Boards of education, parents and communities were in support of zero tolerance policies. They were a product of The Gun Free School Act of 1994 that required States receiving Federal funds under ESEA

...must have in effect, by October 20, 1995, a State law requiring local educational agencies to expel from school for a period of not less than one year a student who is determined to have brought a weapon to school. Each State’s law also must allow the chief administering officer of the local educational agency (LEA) to modify the expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis.

The last sentence presented challenges and local decisions were often made to make zero tolerance mean zero tolerance. Some schools chose to apply the concept even further. In her article, Does Zero Tolerance Work in Schools? Amanda Morin wrote, What “began as a law requiring expulsion for having a gun on school property... has morphed into a way of dealing with bullying, drugs, alcohol and any act of violence, be it physical, verbal or attitudinal.

From one perspective, it seemed like a logical extension and a simple solution. If a child committed one of the acts listed, the reaction of the school would be a standardized one. In cases where administration changed, the rules stood with clarity; no interpretation required. Students, here considered perpetrators, had fair warning that if they committed X, they would suffer consequence Y. The evidence that this serves as a deterrent to unwanted behaviors is lacking.

A recent NY Times article about schools facing the challenges presented by zero tolerance brought forth 390 comments. Here are some of them:

As a process, zero tolerance is mindless. It sweeps up all in its path, both the guilty and the innocent.”

“And I’ll be thrilled when, in place of zero tolerance we have school administrators exercising mature judgment tempered by just a pinch of human compassion.”

“The “we have to follow the rules” response is nonsense. School administrators have tremendous discretion on how rules are enforced--every case presents a set of circumstances that professional educators should be able to apply a continuum of consequences.”

“The message children get from “zero tolerance for violence” policies is that if they defend themselves against attack from bullies they are bad and deserve to be kicked out of school. This is insane.”

“Some balance has to be established.”

It seems we have come to a new place of understanding. Can our schools be effective teaching good behaviors and not just punishing bad ones? The initial appeal of zero tolerance is diminishing. This season is a good time to reflect on the work of schools as environments in which character is taught. We teach character by acting with integrity and emotional intelligence. We cannot expect children to behave in certain ways simply because we, as teachers and leaders, subscribe to them. Some of our students live in environments in which bullying, or fist fighting, name-calling, or using guns to express emotions is the norm. To simply enforce a rule does little, if anything to help change behaviors. And done without understanding, it can push students to the margins. They are made to feel that they do not subscribe to our norms and become further isolated. It is a dangerous path. At best it might keep the behaviors from entering our buildings. But is that our sole goal?

Whether teaching five year olds, or fifteen year olds, our hope for the students who come to us to learn, is that they grow into responsible, caring, hard-working adults who know how to learn, solve problems and make meaningful contributions to society. Graduation ceremonies are always moving. In that moment, when we see those young men and women walk across the stage, there is a feeling that rises in all of us. Is it pride in their accomplishment? Hope for their future? Whatever that feeling is in that moment, is the feeling that can serve us all during each day they spend in our schools.

A commitment to zero tolerance for failure might better serve students and teachers alike. It shifts the focus don’t you think? What would it take for ‘Zero Tolerance for Failure’ to take hold in a school? Everyone would have to gather around and share their hopes and goals for their students, put the barriers out on the table and commit to solutions for those barriers. How different would that feel? There are teachers in all schools who hold this value for success and spend their days and nights working toward their students’ success. But imagine the powerful difference if schools were led on this premise. Teachers’ conversations with each other about students, parents, obstacles to success, and solutions would become built on a foundation of systemic expectation that everyone is working together for every child.

Everyone, teachers and leaders alike, are particularly distracted in today’s struggles with all that has been put before us. But more important than the work put before us, are the children to whom we are committed. Surely many are already on the path; others have fallen off. But this season, the shortest days are behind us. The days will become longer and spring promise will emerge if we let it. This may be the perfect time to redefine what zero tolerance means in our schools. Perhaps this is a time to questions codes of conduct, or guidance practices, or grading practices, or attendance practices, or the manner in which children are spoken to. We were called to this profession to serve children. Let the promise of spring be our reminder that we hold the promise to our students...we hold the promise.

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