Zero Tolerance: Effective School Discipline, or Failed School Policy

by: Royce L. Morris

Zero Tolerance: Are The Policies Effective?

Making The Case For Zero Tolerance: In the aftermath of the massacres in Colombine, Springfield, Paducah and Jonesboro in the late 1990s many school districts have adopted inflexible “zero tolerance” safety policies which result in one strike and your out for students.

Zero tolerance proponents point to school shootings involving multiple fatalities. In addition to the Columbine massacre, they include:

Two students killed at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon on May 20, 1998. Kip Kinkel, 15 at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to 112 years in prison in November, 1999 for the school shootings and the murder of his parents.

A teacher and four students fatally shot at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas on March 24, 1998. The gunmen, Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, at the time of their arrest, will be held in a juvenile detention center until they are 21 years of age.

Three students shot to death at Heath High in West Paducah, Kentucky on December 1, 1997. Michael Carneal, 14, at the time of his arrest, is currently serving a life sentence for the shootings.

Two students fatally shot at Pearl High School, in Pearl, Mississippi on October 1, 1997, Luke Woodham, 16, at the time of his arrest is serving three life sentences for those murders and the fatal stabbing of his mother the day before.

Two students and a teacher killed at Frontier Junior High School in Moses Lake, Washington on February 2, 1996, Barry Koukaitis, 16, at the time of his arrest, was given two life sentences for the shootings. Making Case Against Zero Tolerance

Opponents of zero tolerance demonstrate how absurd the results of such policies can and have been for good students.

A 7-year old Boston, Massachusetts girl who brought a small water pistol into a school was suspended for three days and referred for a psychological evaluation.

A 13-year old girl in Kingwood, Texas was suspended for a day after drug-sniffing dogs detected ibuprofen in her locker.

In Alexandria, Louisiana, an 8-year old girl was expelled from school for bringing her grandfather’s pocket-watch to Show-and-Tell. The watch had a chain attached to it with a one-inch pocketknife; the expulsion was later overturned.

In Belle, West Virginia, a junior high school student who gave a zinc cough lozenge to a classmate was suspended for three days.

A kindergarten boy in Newport News, Virginia was suspended for bringing a beeper on a class trip.

A 9-year old Manassas, Virginia boy received a one day suspension for giving breath mints to a classmate.

A 13-year old Fairborn, Ohio honors student who brought ibuprofen to class received an 80 day expulsion, the expulsion was later reduced to a 3-day suspension.

A 6-year old Madison, North Carolina boy who kissed a girl on the cheek was given a one-day in-school suspension and banned from an in-school ice cream party.

In Columbia, South Carolina, an 11-year old girl was arrested and suspended for having a steak knife in her lunch box to cut her chicken.

In Seattle, a 10-year old boy was expelled for bringing a one-inch plastic toy gun to school.

In York, Pennsylvania a first grader was suspended after his teacher discovered he had a nail clipper containing a two inch knife blade.

Zero Tolerance Policies: Sample Zero Tolerance Policy

Prohibited/Zero Tolerance for Students-Prohibited Conduct:

In order to ensure safe and secure learning environments free of drugs, drug paraphernalia, violence, and dangerous weapons, it is necessary to impose swift, certain and severe disciplinary sanctions on any student who violates certain standards regarding drugs and violence.

Students are prohibited from bringing a drug, drug paraphernalia or dangerous weapons onto a school bus, onto school property, or to any school event or activity.

Students are prohibited from being under the influence of a drug while on a school bus, on school property, or while attend any school event or activity.

Students are prohibited from possessing a drug, drug paraphernalia, or a dangerous weapon while on a school bus, on school property, or while attending any school event or activity.

Students are prohibited from battering, assaulting, or threatening to assault a teacher, principal, administrator, employee, student or other person while on a school bus, on school property, or while attending any school event or activity.

Prohibited/Zero Tolerance for Students-Zero Tolerance

Any student who unlawfully uses or possesses any narcotic or stimulant drug, prescription drug, or any other controlled substance, or who uses or possesses a firearm, or who commits battery upon any teacher, principal, administrator or other employee in violation of this policy shall be expelled from school, including any alternative school established under T.C.A. ¶49-6-3402, for a period of not less than one (1) calendar year. Under the provisions of the state law, the Director of Schools may modify any such expulsion on a case-by-case basis.

Under the Board’s Zero Tolerance Policy for these types of misconduct, the student shall be promptly reported to appropriate law enforcement authorities. (Munfreboro City Schools).

Terms used in this policy shall of the meanings assigned in Tennessee Code Annotated ¶49-6-4201 and ¶49-6-3401.

Compare With Pennsylvania Statute:

Education 24 PS 13-1317.2 – Possession of Weapons Prohibited

(a) Except as otherwise provided in this section, a school district or area vocational-technical school shall expel, for a period of not less than one year, any student who is determined to have brought onto, or is in possession of a weapon on any school property, any school-sponsored activity or any public conveyance providing transportation to a school or school-sponsored activity.

(b) Every school district and area vocational-technical school shall develop written policy regarding expulsions for possession of a weapon as required under this section. Expulsions shall be conducted pursuant to all applicable regulations.

(c) The superintendent of a school district or an administrative director of an area vocational-technical school may recommend modifications of such expulsion requirements for a student on a case-by-case basis. The superintendent or other chief administrative officer of a school entity shall, in the case of an exceptional student, take all steps necessary to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Public Law 91-230, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.).

(d) The provisions of this section shall not apply to the following:

(1) a weapon being used as part of a program approved by a school by an individual who is participating in the program; or

(2) a weapon that is unloaded and is possessed by an individual while traversing school property for the purpose of obtaining access to public or private lands for lawful hunting, if the entry on school premises is authorized by school authorities.

(e) Nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the authority or duty of a school or area vocational-technical school to make an alternative assignment or provide alternative educational services during the period of expulsion.

(e.1) A school district receiving a student who transfers from a public or private school during a period of expulsion for an act or offense involving a weapon may assign that student to an alternative assignment or provide alternative education services, provided that the assignment may not exceed the period of expulsion.

(f) All school districts and area vocational-technical schools shall report all incidents involving possession of a weapon prohibited by this section as follows:

(1) The school superintendent or chief administrator shall report the discovery of any weapon prohibited by this section to local law enforcement officials.

(2) The school superintendent or chief administrator shall report to the Department of Education all incidents relating to expulsions for possession of a weapon on school grounds, school-sponsored activities or public conveyances providing transportation to a school or school-sponsored activity. Reports shall include all information as required under section 1302-A.

(g) As used in this section, the term “weapon” shall include, but not be limited to, any knife, cutting instrument, cutting tool, nunchaku, firearm, shotgun, rifle and any other tool, instrument or implement capable of inflicting serious bodily injury.

Some school policies and state laws treat toy guns similarly when applying zero tolerance penalties. In Washington, the law allows school districts to expel students for possession of a toy weapon only if they are used with “malice, meaning evil intent, wish or design to vex, annoy or injure another person.”

This policy played out in 1998 in the Seattle School District when a sixth grader was expelled when a squirt gun fell out of his backpack at lunch. The boy was expelled but later reinstated after the boy’s attorney pointed out that under Washington’s law the boy should not be subject to the zero tolerance penalty because the squirt gun was not used with “malice.”

Most schools also impose zero tolerance policies for children who bring alcohol and drugs to school much like the policies above the penalty often results in expulsion. Take the example of Lisa Smith, an honor student, cheerleader and student council member at Lakeview Middle School in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. She had an exemplary school record. She, however, in a moment of shear stupidity violated her school’s zero tolerance policy by bringing to school a 20-ounce bottle of cherry 7-Up mixed with a few drops of grain alcohol. Under the school policy, the school district was compelled to apply the inflexible zero tolerance policy to her.

Has Zero Tolerance Made A Difference

Most of the nations 109,000 public school have zero tolerance policies, but have they made a difference?

Deaths had fallen 40 percent

“School House Hype: Two Years Later,” published by the Justice Policy Institute in 2000, follows the institute’s similar report two years earlier. The new report matched actual crime statistics with people’s fear of school shootings, as measured by polls.

The comparisons revealed a significant disparity between the two sets of data. According to the report, 49 percent of Americans polled by USA Today immediately after the Columbine shooting said they feared school shootings more at that point than they had the year before. But school-associated violent deaths actually fell 40 percent in the 1998-1999 school year compared with the year before.

The odds of a child dying at school remain one in 2 million, according to the National School Safety Center. But 71 percent of people answering a 1998 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said they thought it likely that a school shooting could take place in their community.

And even though only 4 percent of juvenile homicides occur in rural areas, a May 1999 Gallup poll found that 54 percent of rural parents feared school violence would harm their children, compared with the 46 percent or urban parents and the 44 percent of suburban parents who said the same.

Media Shapes Public Opinion

Jason Ziedenberg, a co-author of the Justice Policy Institute report, blames the media’s ubiquitous, unceasing broadcasts of school shootings for this distorted perception of school violence.

“When something like a school shooting happens, which is a riveting story, everybody covers it, and everybody covers it in volume,” Ziedenberg said. “The problem was . . . the volume of the coverage has really influenced people’s opinion.”

Twenty-four-hour national news operations such as CNN and MSNBC have especially misled many, Ziedenberg said.

“Before, when something serious happened of a crime nature, it was community-oriented,” Ziedenberg said. “Now the kind of community idea of where crime occurs is so much more nationwide.”

Ziedenberg’s position is bolstered by academic research into the media’s effect on people’s fears. Ten years ago, George Gerbner, the former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term “Mean World Syndrome” to describe the exaggerated fears people have developed from watching murder and mayhem on the news.

The more television people watch, the more fearful they become.

“For all practical purposes, they live in a meaner world than their neighbor, who lives next door but [may watch] less television.”

The news worsens fears even if the news story takes place far away.

“Nothing is far away if it happens in the United States,” said Gerbner, now a professor at Temple University. “If it is in a familiar setting, and if it reverberates sufficiently, it has an effect in every locality.”

Extreme, Misguided Steps?

These exaggerated fears have led some administrators to take extreme, misguided steps, Ziedenberg said, such as zero tolerance and mandatory expulsion policies.

The report cited statistics from the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that showed an increase in suspensions from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million by 1997.

Few children reform themselves after getting kicked out of school, the report claims. Citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the report says that youths out of school are more likely to get involved in physical fights and to carry weapons.

The report also says that out-of-school teens are more likely to smoke and use alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, as well s engage in sexual intercourse, have poor eating habits and not wear seat belts. (Reported by ABP News, April 2001).

Minority Students Affect Most

Racial disparities in the application of school disciplinary policies have long-been documented. The disparities are quite troubling. Most recent data from the Department of Education indicates that while African-American children only represent 17% of public school enrollment nationally, they constitute 32% of out-of-school suspensions. White students, 63% of enrollment, represent only 50% of suspensions and 50% of expulsions. A recent study by the Applied Research Center shows that black children, particularly black males, are disciplined more often and more severely than any other minority group. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education’s report, The Condition of Education, 1997, reveals that almost 25% of all African-American male students were suspended at least once over a four-year period. These statistics by themselves do not prove intentional discrimination, but they suggest that such discrimination may be widespread. And, regardless whether the disparities are intentional or unintentional, the numbers are nonetheless alarming. (Statistics First reported by the Civil Rights Project, Harvard University, June 2000).

The implementation of zero tolerance policies must reflect proportionality. Celia Jose, spokeswoman for the American Federation, advised as follows:

“I think it’s imperative for all schools to have discipline policies, and it probably makes a great deal of sense for schools to have zero tolerance policies, . . . But zero tolerance must be reserved for the most serious offenses.”

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