The concept of zero tolerance originated in the military and coincided with the adoption of the law-and-order agenda in criminal justice. It stems from the “broken windows” thesis developed by George Kelling and James Wilson in the 1980s. The broken windows thesis posited that low-level problems in a community cause citizens to disengage from public spaces, thereby allowing offenders greater opportunity to commit additional and perhaps more serious offenses. The idea was that a crackdown on these low-level offenses–in other words, a zero-tolerance approach–could prevent additional acts of deviance.
The notion of zero tolerance spread to schools in the 1990s, as educators, parents, and politicians became fearful of what they perceived as a surge in school violence. The first zero-tolerance laws were enacted as part of the Gun-Free School Zones Act, part of the Crime Control Act of 1990, which required districts to expel students for no less than one year if they knowingly brought a firearm into a school zone. The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act provided funds for districts to enact policies with mandatory minimum penalties. It did not absolutely mandate suspension or expulsion for studies who committed offenses, but instead required districts to uniformly treat specific offenses, generally those involving weapons, violence, and drugs. All 50 states endorsed this legislation. Consequently, districts set about determining the specific penalties that would be assigned for given offenses. Eighty-seven percent of all schools now have zero-tolerance policies for alcohol and drugs. Ninety-one percent of schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies for bringing a weapon to school.
Although many people believe these laws address only violent or drug-related behavior, that is not necessarily the case. In fact, most states have some type of “catch-all” clause that allows for the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence for nonviolent behavior, such as “persistent disobedience.”
Supporters say zero-tolerance laws are needed to keep schools safe and drug free so that educators can do what they are supposed to–teach. Many others have expressed concern over zero-tolerance laws. Although they are supposed to ensure that all students committing a specific offense are treated the same, in actuality that has not occurred. African American males, while constituting 17% of the total U.S. student population in 2000, accounted for 33% of students suspended from school in that year. This inequity is not generally due to any proclivity to commit more serious violent incidents, but rather the result of the highly subjective “catch-all” clauses.
Although the intent of zero-tolerance policies was to make schools safer by removing students who had weapons or other dangerous items, many students who have been apprehended with these items are still allowed in the school.
Critics point out that this type of blanket policy often ensnares students who have no nefarious intent. In many cases, students have been suspended or expelled for silly things, as in the case of a 10-year-old who was suspended for taking a paintball gun to show-and-tell, the seventh grader who was suspended for chewing and then sharing a piece of caffeine energy gum, and the five-year-old who was suspended for wearing a fire fighter costume that contained a toy ax. Opponents maintain that no policy should be so rigid it cannot respond to these minor issues.
Critics also note that policies such as zero tolerance have led educators to take a hands-off approach to discipline. Instead of discussing critical issues with students and trying to find root causes, educators are increasingly imposing sanctions with no questions asked. Worse, many students who violate zero-tolerance policies are turned over to law enforcement, creating what has been called the school-to-prison pipeline.
Further, critics note that students who are suspended or expelled are far more likely to drop out of school. Although they can be accepted into other districts, this does not often happen. Thus the problem does not go away but instead becomes one for the larger community, not the school. Additionally, opponents of zero tolerance laws note that there is a scarcity of hard data supporting the contention that these policies are effective.
Given these and other criticisms, the American Bar Association (ABA) has called on districts to remove their zero-tolerance policies. Alternatives might include greater use of in-school suspension, counseling, and development of alternative schools that can meet the needs of all students. Further, educators are encouraged to consider the climate in their school and to enact prevention programs that help maintain a safe, drug-free, and creative school community.
- Advancement Project and the Civil Rights Project. (2000). Opportunities suspended: The devastating consequences of zero tolerance and school discipline policies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- American Bar Association. (n.d.). Zero Tolerance policy. ABA.
- Casella, R. (2001). At zero tolerance: Punishment, prevention and school violence. New York: Peter Lang.
- Cauchon, D. (1999, April 13). Zero tolerance policies lack flexibility. USA Today.
- Grant, T. (2006, August 31). Back to school: Zero tolerance makes discipline more severe, involves the courts. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- Skiba, R., Michael, R., Nardo, A., & Peterson, R. (2000). The color of discipline: Sources ofracial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. Bloomington, ID: Indiana Education Policy Center.