‘Zero tolerance’ often of zero value

A recent news program displayed images of 14 police officers attempting to enforce a local zero-tolerance policy by raiding a high school. The officers entered the school with guns drawn, forced students to the walls and ordered them to get on their knees with their hands behind their heads. After officers searched the students’ backpacks for drugs, nothing was found.

There has been a steady rise in the number of zero-tolerance policies since Columbine in April 1999, but questions have arisen about the effectiveness of these policies, as well as the absurdity of their implementation.

A Missouri judge, for example, ruled that a 6-year-old boy suspected of killing his grandfather should be tried as an adult. A 7-year-old in New Jersey has been charged with molesting a 5-year-old girl while, as the defense attorney says, all they were doing was “playing doctor.” In Pinellas County, an 8-year-old was taken away in handcuffs for drawing a picture of a gun.

Many of these policies are being adopted in schools because of pressure put upon them from higher authorities, such as in 1994 when Congress passed the Gun-Free School Act, forcing states to adopt zero-tolerance weapons policies or lose their federal funding. Soon after, a number of stories emerged about children being suspended or expelled for possessing water guns, paper guns and even forming their hand in the shape of a gun and saying “bang.”

Fox News recently said, “Zero tolerance takes discretion and evaluation away from educators and mandates responses that can be wildly inappropriate.”

In 1999, a study of the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies was published in the educational journal National Association of Elementary School Principals. The study concluded that there was little evidence to prove the policies were having the desired effect. Even worse, the study reported that the policies are merely enacted to reassure the public that something is being done to ensure school safety, while their effectiveness has not been proven.

With little evidence of its effectiveness and growing evidence highlighting the absurdity of its implementation, zero-tolerance policies appear to be doing more harm than good. Education administrators need to realize that educators need to be free to exercise their judgment and should discard this blanket approach to high-school discipline.