Zero tolerance—or zero sense?


Conceived as a way to improve school security and maintain consistent discipline and order, zero tolerance was enshrined by a 1994 federal law that required states to mandate a minimum one-year expulsion of any student caught with a firearm on school property. Over the years, many states and school districts expanded zero tolerance to include offenses as varied as fighting, skipping school or arguing with a teacher.

Some experts say there’s little evidence that zero tolerance—in which certain infractions compel automatic discipline, usually suspension or expulsion—makes schools safer, and contend the policies leads to increased rates of dropouts and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Supporters respond that zero tolerance is a useful and necessary tool for removing disruptive kids from the classroom, and say any problems stem from its misapplication.

The original 1994 federal law, and most state and local zero tolerance policies, give school administrators the flexibility to tailor punishments to fit the circumstances, noted school safety expert Kenneth Trump.

“Contrary to the myth of zero tolerance, most school board policies provide options and flexibility for administrators. What you see is poor decision-making and poor implementation of the policies, rather than the fact school administrators are handcuffed in terms of their discretion,” he said.

Trump said most school officials bend over backwards to be fair. But he added there’s no question that Sandy Hook weighs heavily.

“It’s a normal occurrence to have a heightened sensitivity after a high-profile tragedy, but that does not negate the need for common sense,” he said.

Maryland father Stephen Grafton said common sense was in short supply in a case involving his 6-year-old son, who he said was suspended from White Marsh Elementary School in Trappe, along with a second 6-year-old, for using their hands as “guns” during recess.

Grafton, a staff sergeant in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, said administrators were criminalizing play. He said he told his son he shouldn’t shoot pretend guns because it makes some children upset, “but it was a difficult conversation to have because he didn’t do anything wrong.”

The school lifted the suspension after a day and removed it from his record, Grafton said.

“It’s a very hypersensitive time,” he said. “But, still, common sense has to apply for something like this, and it looks like common sense just went completely out the window.”

The school principal did not respond to messages.

Zero tolerance traces its philosophical roots to the “broken windows” theory of policing, which argues that if petty crime is held in check, more serious crime and disorder are prevented. So it’s no accident that students are often harshly punished over relatively minor misbehavior, said Russell Skiba, a zero tolerance expert at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

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