The unfortunate events that occurred in Columbine in 1999 spurred the dramatic increase of zero-tolerance policies. Some states and school districts have since reevaluated this extreme and seemingly knee-jerk response to a tragedy by eliminating their zero-tolerance policies altogether or by softening the guidelines, however these policies are alive and well in many parts of the United States.
In a nutshell, the policy is one that punishes student offenders, often in extreme manners such as expulsion, for any infraction of any rule regardless of circumstance. Supporters of these types of policies hoped to reduce crime and aggression within schools. They also hoped that by creating steadfast rules and punishments, undesired student behavior would dramatically increase due to the threat of immediate, extreme consequences. Another hopeful positive outcome was that there would be more equity for all students because rules and consequences were set in stone and the same for every child regardless of social standing, ethnicity, etc.
Unfortunately, these types of policies, which do not allow for case-by-case consideration have created many negative effects. Many students have been severely punished for unintentional breaking of rules. Zero-tolerance policies seem to eliminate the need for human thought, compassion and understanding, and instead resort to putting zero faith in one’s ability to use reason or logic to decide an appropriate punishment for someone who breaks a rule. According to the American Bar Association, instead of more equality in punishments, minority students seem to be suffering the most in the name of zero-tolerance policies. Many United States Courts and Departments of Education have ruled that zero-tolerance policies are unfair and ineffective.
This topic is close to my heart as a former student was expelled from our school this year, and even though our district does not support any written zero-tolerance policy it seems that this student’s case was handled in that manner, and then promptly swept under the rug, with complete support from some educators in our building. This student, a 4th grader, was found with a box cutter in his possession, he did not make threats to use the box cutter, he did actually do anything with the ‘weapon’, nor did he have any history of violence. When he was questioned by adults for why he had the box cutter, he did what was characteristic of him, he shut down, began to cry and could not answer the questions. Our school board of directors made the decision to expel him, and he could potentially be out of school for 5th grade as well. When I asked our assistant principal what could be done for this student, she offered no suggestions, the decision had been made and that was that.
I wonder, what justice was served, who was protected, and whether or not this young man, already part of an at-risk population will be able to recover from this gross injustice. I wonder how many other students suffer annually from the effects of zero-tolerance policies.