Zero Tolerance Policies in America's Public School System: Beneficial or Another Hassle?
My reason for selecting zero tolerance as my subject matter is a direct correlation to my experiences in the public school system. Having transferred from a small parochial school where the rules were clear, the nuns were ever present, and to commit a school related infraction was to commit a sin, I was used to a certain level of order. Who wanted to have to go to confession with Father John and admit to some wrongdoing? Even though I was not Catholic, I certainly didn't want to have a one-on-one with Father John. When I transferred to the public school for my high school years, it was like night and day. There was no longer the governance of faith and the fear of sinful implication that guided the behavior of the student body. Even then, the sort of things those students would sneak into school were nothing in comparison to what children attending public schools experience today. There was no need for metal detectors and security or police guards at my public high school. A need certainly exists today.
Sneaking contraband into school has been a rite of passage for many students for decades. However, the sorts of things that are being brought into the schools today have the capacity to do serious harm, not just to the student carrying, but to other students as well. More and more weapons are being brought into the school, as well as illicit drugs that make many public schools unsafe and significantly impede the learning process for far too many students.
Who can forget the school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999? This horrific incident fueled fears that in the name of safety, public schools began adopting the tactics used in the war on drugs and the fight against juvenile crime.
What Columbine did wasn't to start the zero tolerance perfusion but to make these policies seem attractive to an unprecedented degree. Politicians were put on the spot to "stop school violence NOW." Zero tolerance policies became a very popular method for politicians and administrators to show how dedicated and committed they were to solving the problem. Zero tolerance policies were adopted as quick fix, one size fits all solutions. Quite naturally they have failed abysmally. ("Archives")
Although such tactics may have created a perception of safety, some experts fear it is at the expense of a caring culture and creating devastating consequences for students (Browne-Dianis 2).
2. My Thesis Statement:
The zero tolerance policy strives to reduce violence in schools and make schools a safer place for students. The zero tolerance policy stands for just that: there will be no threats and no violence of any kind. There should be no reason for students to feel the need to bring weapons to school. Students should feel safe when coming to school and not be fearful of any potential violence. If the zero tolerance policy as it now stands is shown to be ineffective, then adaptations or alternatives to keeping our schools safe places needs to be studied.
3. Supporting Premises
The first premise to support my thesis statement is there has been a significant increase nationwide in contraband being brought into the public school system that makes them unsafe. The National School Safety Center's Report on School Associated Violent Deaths reported: "In the 1992-2001 school years, shooting was the leading cause of violent deaths in schools (77%), and 68% of all school violent deaths occurred in high schools" (20). For example, in one Los Angeles Public School in 2010, more than 400 students were suspected of bringing weaponry into the school inclusive of chains, throwing stars, shotguns, ice picks, one hand grenades, and pokers (citation needed). Still another 800 plus students were suspected of being in possession of illicit substances including narcotic pills, marijuana and crack cocaine (citation needed). The school even reported incidents of children bringing pets such as iguanas, spiders, snakes, lizards and mice into the school (citation needed). All of these things are more than a distraction to other students and school personnel. Significant risk is placed on the system and the students making school unsafe.
The second premise to support my thesis statement is that even without physical items that can be construed as weaponry; clothing and paraphernalia that can be associated with gangs can also be a tool of distraction and increased risk to students. These kinds of contraband are used by students to intimidate others, and physical altercations can be the result. Moreover, this can be directly associated to the escalated levels of bullying that transpire in schools as well.
The third premise to support my thesis statement is the academic scores of many of the nation's children are below standards, and the United States is falling behind on many academic fronts particularly in the public school systems (citation needed). This lack of substantive progress may be attributable in part, to the many distractions and dangers that zero tolerance policies address.
4. Opposing Point-of-View
Zero tolerance policies and procedures have gone too far and everything is now considered contraband. Children are unable to bring aspirin to school for a headache without being suspected of violating zero tolerance policies. Too much of the public school system's time and resources is being spent adjudicating on matters that do not rise to the level of contraband or posing significant risk to other children. Moreover, zero tolerance has failed to look at intent and is only looking at categories of "offenses."
In Florida, a dinner knife was found on the floor of an honor student's car parked in the school parking lot (citation needed). She now faces felony charges. In another incident, police were called and a twelve-year-old student was led off in hand cuffs for scribbling on her desk with an erasable marker (citation needed). One has to ask the question: does the charge fit the crime? Or as Nancy Gibbs in her essay "Zero Tolerance Zero Sense" states: "When authorities confuse intent and accident, when rules are seen as more sacred than sense, when a contrite first-time offender is treated no differently from a serial classroom menace, we teach children that authority is deaf and dumb, that there is no judgment in justice" (63).
5. Zero Tolerance - Is there a balance?
A report from the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force concluded that zero tolerance does not improve school safety -- in fact, use of exclusionary practices appears to negatively affect student behavior (page number needed). If that is true, then what is the answer? Certainly, no one can argue the point that our schools should be safe places for all students meaning there is zero violence. Yet, more and more evidence points toward a Zero Tolerance policy as more of a problem than a solution.
The Task Force found that students who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to drop out of school altogether (page number needed). Furthermore, when students feel less connected to school they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as violence, substance or alcohol abuse.
Recognizing that strict exclusionary practices are not working, many school districts are taking steps to revise district discipline codes. As an alternative approach they are developing practices and programs to use discipline to teach, maintain safety and strengthen students' connectedness to school (Browne-Dianis 2). In Denver, Colorado new discipline codes were adopted that limit out of class to deal with minor misconduct (citation needed). Graduated discipline is utilized and only the most serious misconduct results in suspension, expulsion, and referrals to law enforcement agencies. In addition, Denver schools have instituted a policy called restorative justice which focuses on resolving conflict by repairing harm and restoring relationships…