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Zero Tolerance Policy in Schools

Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Zero tolerance policies are common in schools. This lesson will discuss the ins and outs of zero tolerance policies and will end with a brief quiz to see what you have learned.

What is Zero Tolerance?

Have you ever been pulled over for speeding while driving? Did you receive a ticket and a fine? Or maybe you got lucky and were let off with a warning instead. With a zero tolerance policy, you absolutely would be punished. The police officer would dole out the same punishment for every speeding driver no matter what.

Zero tolerance policies outline predetermined punishments for rule breakers. There are no warnings or exclusions for mistakes or accidents. If you are caught breaking a rule in a school with a zero tolerance policy, you will be given a specific punishment.

Zero tolerance policies are common in elementary, middle, and high schools throughout America. They are in place for many things, including weapons, drugs, and violence. Now that we understand what zero tolerance policies are, let's take a closer look at both how they emerged and their effectiveness overall.

History of Zero Tolerance

Take a moment to think back on your high school experience. Did you know the consequences for breaking the rules? Do you recall how students were punished when they did break the rules?

Perhaps students were forced to stay after school in detention for minor infractions such as being tardy. Hopefully, suspension, which is temporary removal from school, or expulsion, which is permanent removal from school, were much less common for this type of rule breaking. But what about for cases of serious lapses in judgement like drugs, weapons, or violence?

Zero tolerance policies emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a result of increased crime in schools involving drugs, weapons, and violence. During this time, things like mass school shootings and strict federal laws such as the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) of 1994, which prohibited guns in schools, prompted school administrators to come up with no-nonsense punishments in order to deter crime and create safer schools. For example, students may be suspended, expelled, or even arrested by law enforcement for violation of a zero tolerance policy.

Zero Tolerance Controversy

The goal of zero tolerance policies in schools is to deter crime and create safe schools by removing rule-breakers. However, some feel that in some cases the penalties are too harsh. What about the elementary school child who is caught with aspirin in his backpack not knowing that this qualifies as a drug? Should this child be expelled? Under a zero tolerance policy he would be treated the same as a student caught with an illegal street drug. This type of concern is widely discussed as a flaw with zero tolerance policies.

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