Zero Tolerance Polices. ERIC Digest.
by McAndrews, Tobin
Responding to concern over school safety, state legislatures and school
boards in recent years have enacted a range of zero-tolerance policies
focused on combating weapons, drugs, violence, and antisocial behavior.
Results have been mixed, with some critics discounting the policies altogether.
Almost all schools report having zero-tolerance policies for firearms (94
percent) and weapons other than firearms (91 percent), according to the
National Center for Education Statistics (Kaufman and others 2000). Eighty-seven
percent of schools have zero-tolerance policies for alcohol, and 88 percent
have policies for drugs. Most schools also have zero-tolerance policies
for violence and tobacco (79 percent each).
This Digest describes the origins of zero-tolerance policies, presents
evidence on their effectiveness, examines criticisms of them, and recommends
strategies to make the policies more useful.
WHAT IS ZERO TOLERANCE?
Zero-tolerance policies are administrative rules intended to address
specific problems associated with school safety and discipline. In 1994
Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, which required states to legislate
zero-tolerance laws or risk losing federal funds (Martin 2000). In response,
various states, counties, and districts have developed their own policies
in tune with local needs. In implementing the policies, some administrators
have cast a broad net, treating both minor and major incidents with equal
severity to "send a message" to potential violators (Skiba and Peterson
The Gun-Free Schools Act included language allowing local review on
a case-by-case basis. Some administrators have declined to exercise this
discretion, believing instead that continued unwavering application of
zero tolerance is necessary to deal with disruptive students (Skiba and
Sometimes even exemplary students are caught in the zero-tolerance net.
For instance, during the 1997-8 school year, a teacher observed 12-year-old
Adam L., an A student, filing his nails with a miniature Swiss Army knife;
for violating the school's anti-weapons policy, the youth received a one-year
expulsion (Zirkel 1999).
WHY WERE ZERO-TOLERANCE POLICIES ESTABLISHED?
Zero-tolerance policies were enacted to combat the seemingly overwhelming
increase in school violence during the 1990s. In a 1995 School Crime Victimization
Survey, 12 percent of responding students knew someone who had brought
a gun to school (Ashford 2000). As the media focused on violence in schools,
pressure increased on legislators to take action against weapons in schools.
Following enactment of the Gun-Free Schools Act, all 50 states adopted
some variation of the law. This law made Elementary and Secondary Education
Act (ESEA) funds "contingent on a state's enacting a 'zero-tolerance' law
with the goal of producing gun-free schools" (Ashford). Some states went
beyond this focus on guns and decided to apply zero tolerance to the entire
breadth of possible disciplinary infractions in an effort to weed out violators
and standardize discipline.
ARE ZERO-TOLERANCE POLICIES FULFILLING THEIR PURPOSE?
It has been almost a decade since schools first began to institute zero-tolerance
policies, and more than six years since the Gun-Free Schools Act. Critics
claim there has been no concerted effort to test the efficacy of interventions
that target school behavior, and few studies have evaluated the effectiveness
of zero-tolerance strategies (Skiba and Peterson).
The National Center for Education Statistics found that, after four
years of implementation, zero-tolerance policies had little effect at previously
unsafe schools; the center also reports that the current data do not demonstrate
a dramatic decrease in school-based violence in recent years (Ashford).
The popularity of zero-tolerance policies may have less to do with their
actual effect than the image they portray of schools taking resolute measures
to prevent violence. Whether the policies actually change student behavior
may be less important than the reassurance it gives the school community
at large (Ashford).
Some schools report positive results from their policies. In Tacoma,
Washington, Henry Foss Senior High School's School-Centered Decision Making
(SCDM) team implemented in fall 1991 a zero-tolerance policy against fighting.
After one year, the policy resulted in a 95 percent drop in violent behavior
on campus. Moreover, the policy's positive impact led to record-breaking
freshmen enrollment; the majority of new entrants indicated that they were
attending the school primarily because of its safety (Burke and Herbert
Similar results were found in New Jersey's Lower Camden County Regional
High School District, where zero tolerance contributed to a 30 percent
drop in superintendent disciplinary hearings; drug-related offenses dropped
by nearly one-half (Schreiner 1996).
WHY ARE ZERO-TOLERANCE POLICIES CRITICIZED?
Zero-tolerance policies create long-term problems through exclusion,
say critics. Consistently, school suspension was found to be a moderate
to strong predictor of a student's dropping out of school (Skiba and Peterson).
When students are not in school, they are on the streets and, more often
than not, getting in more serious trouble than they could at school. Setting
these policies in stone without any thought to the inherent ambiguities
of human interaction allows only arbitrariness and exclusion and, thus,
abandons the educational mission of schools, asserts Perlstein (2000).
Zero-tolerance policies have undoubtedly created legal headaches for
some school administrators. By greatly increasing the number of students
considered for expulsion, and by removing the flexibility previously accorded
to administrators, these policies have hindered administrators' ability
to address marginal incidents, says Stader (2000).
Perhaps the biggest problem with zero-tolerance policies is inconsistent
application and interpretation. David Day, general counsel for four Indiana
school districts, says he expects lawsuits when board members suddenly
announce they are imposing a zero-tolerance policy that leaves no room
for administrators' discretion or students' due-process rights (Jones 2000).
In February 2001, the American Bar Association approved a resolution
opposing "policies that have a discriminatory effect, or mandate either
expulsion or referral of students to juvenile or criminal court, without
regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense or the student's history."
A report on the resolution noted the disproportionate number of African-American
students who have been expelled (Juvenile Law Center 2000).
A weak link in the chain connecting policy to practice is that those
responsible for implementation often haven't heard of, or don't clearly
understand, the policy. In the absence of training on how to deal with
infractions, administrative ignorance or ineptitude is largely to blame
for lawsuits over disciplinary actions.
Although most mainstream students live in a "one strike you're out"
environment, the situation is different for special-education students.
Laws governing violations by special-education students generally guarantee
the student's right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. To expel
a special-education student, a panel must be convened to determine whether
the violation is related to the student's disability, in which case the
school must follow due-process procedures, including an IEP meeting and
subsequent hearing (Zirkel).
Special-education students are also protected by the "stay put" provision,
which keeps them in their present educational environment unless a court
grants a preliminary injunction declaring that the student presents a high
level of danger as defined in Honig v. Doe (1988).
WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF AN EFFECTIVE POLICY?
When formulating a zero-tolerance policy, it may be useful for state
officials and local school boards to attend to the following recommendations:
* Specify clear consequences for misbehavior, with consistency of application.
* Allow flexibility and consider expulsion alternatives.
* Clearly define what constitutes a weapon, a drug, or an act of misbehavior.
* Comply with state due-process laws and allow for student hearings.
* Develop the policy collaboratively with all stake holding agencies
(for example, state departments of education, juvenile justice, and health
and human services).
* Learn from the experiences educators have had with zero tolerance
in other states, schools, and districts.
* Integrate comprehensive health-education programs that include drug
and alcohol curricula.
* Tailor the policy to local needs.
* Review the policy each year.
A sound policy allows administrators some degree of discretion in responding
to infractions. The policy should allow officials to consider the special
circumstances of a violation, such as the age of the offender, the ability
of the offender to comprehend the policy, the intent of the offender, the
effect of the transgression on other students (both those directly and
indirectly involved), and, finally, the past disciplinary record of the
offender (Martin). Special circumstances can be used to consider alternatives
that may be more appropriate than expulsion.
By categorizing violations in accordance with their severity, administrators
send a strong message that violations will not be allowed, while avoiding
a "one size fits all" approach (Ashford). While setting up discretionary
systems to handle policy violation may prolong the decision-making process,
it will free schools from a tangle of due-process litigation and allow
decisions to be made on the basis of facts so appropriate disciplinary
action can be levied (Stader).
When students are suspended or expelled, they should be referred to
outside counseling and, in extreme cases, to local law-enforcement agencies.
By following these guidelines, administrators will not only cover their
own accountability but also create excellent resources that could offer
valuable second opinions into any administrative decisions being made.
A zero-tolerance policy is but one part of a broader set of policies
dealing with school safety. Each school district should also develop a
crisis-management plan tailored to individual schools and their communities.
Conflict-mediation programs, active recruitment of students to participate
in planning, and peer mentoring may open lines of communication between
students, improve the school climate, and reduce violence (Stader). This
strategy has worked for schools in Wisconsin and North Carolina (Blair
When communicating zero-tolerance policies to the public as well as
to the school community, officials should focus on three points: exact
definitions of punishable offenses, consequences for noncompliance, and
the decision process that will be followed when offenses occur. To alleviate
apprehension, administrators can stress that children are actually safer
at school than anywhere else.
Ashford, Roger. "Can Zero Tolerance Keep Our Schools Safe?" Principal
(November 2000): 28-30.
Blair, Frank. "Does Zero Tolerance Work?" Principal 79, 1 (September
1999): 36-37. EJ 592 961.
Burke, Ethelda, and Don Herbert. "Zero Tolerance Policy: Combating Violence
in Schools." NASSP Bulletin (April 1996): 49-54. EJ 522 765.
Jones, Rebecca. "Schools and the Law: Legal Trouble Spots and How To
Avoid Them." American School Board Journal 187, 4 (April 2000): 24-30.
EJ 603 262.
Juvenile Law Center. Philadelphia. For text of American Bar Association
resolution, go to http://www.jlc.org/home/updates/updates_links/aba_zerotol.htm
Kaufman, Philip, and others. "Indicators of School Crime and Safety,
2000." Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics. NCES
Report (January 2000): Appendix A, 133-34. ED 444 270.
Martin, Michael. "Does Zero Mean Zero?" American School Board Journal
187, 3 (March 2000): 39-41. EJ 601 206.
Perlstein, Daniel. "Failing at Kindness: Why Fear of Violence Endangers
Children." Educational Leadership (March 2000): 76-79.
Schreiner, Michael. "Bold Steps Build Safe Havens." School Business
Affairs 62, 11 (November 1996): 44-46. EJ 535 678.
Skiba, Russ, and Reece Peterson. "The Dark Side of Zero Tolerance."
Phi Delta Kappan 80, 5 (January 1999): 372-76, 381-82. EJ 579 414.
Stader, David. "Preempting Threats with a Sound School Policy." NASSP
Bulletin 84, 617 (September 2000): 68-72.
Zirkel, Perry. "Zero Tolerance Expulsions." NASSP Bulletin 83, 610 (November
1999): 101-05. EJ 597 055.