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Zero Tolerance Strikes Again

A story hit my newsfeed a few days ago and after reading it I was struck with the same reaction I have been having to stories involving students and school discipline for about a decade now, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The story that got my ire up so early in the morning and even prior to my morning coffee kicking in was headlined, “Volleyball captain, demoted, suspended after coming to the aid of drunken friend.” In summary, the news reports North Andover (MA) High School Senior Erin Cox got a phone call from a friend who had been drinking at an under-age party. Cox, captain of the volleyball team went to her friend’s aid. Unfortunately, the police were right behind her when she arrived. The officers did not cite her nor was she in any legal trouble whatsoever as they recognized the situation and used discretion in their dealings with her. North Andover HS personnel, on the other hand, weren’t as flexible. Citing their zero tolerance policy and in particular the separate statement regarding punishment of those in leadership positions, Cox was demoted from captain and suspended from the next five games. This seems harsh without even considering long-term consequences such as Cox’ ability to get scholarships based on her athletic performance.

North Andover sticks by their determination pointing to the policies that regulate any incidents involving drugs or alcohol. This is where the issue lies. When did we as a community, including public service professionals, allow all discretion to be removed from our toolbox? Imagine being a patrol officer without any power of choice when you encounter a situation. You cannot base your reaction and therefore your consequence on the other person’s intent or any other factors. It would be like having a matrix that outlines every possible situation (on its face) and the exact response you are required to have to it.

Behavior: Someone takes an item not belonging to them.

Response: Arrest, a fine and predetermined jail time.

Would this be the appropriate “zero tolerance” response if you had two situations, one in which a homeless father takes two blankets out of the Goodwill pile someone has on their front lawn and two where an adult female takes a stack of CDs from a local music store?

As a public safety professional, I appreciate the ability to make choices based on each individual situation and the varying factors that make up people’s circumstances and actions. School disciplinary policies under zero-tolerance have stripped the ability to have discretion. Opponents of these policies have been warning of the unintended (and unfortunately some intended) consequences of zero tolerance since the beginning. In the past few years, research has come to light outlining the negative consequences and questioning the rational and the appropriateness of having numerous zero tolerance policies especially those that cross the civil/criminal line.

Broad Zero Tolerance Policies

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) have collectively advised against policies which they define as evolving over time into “school or district-wide policies that mandate predetermined, typically harsh consequences or punishments [such as suspension and expulsion] for a wide degree of rule violation.” They go on to say that these policies are “complex, costly and generally ineffective.” These policies create a denial of educational services, have specific legal as well as ethical dilemmas for certain populations, including minorities and those with disabilities and have no evidence that removing students from school makes a positive contribution to school safety. Jordan(MN) Police Department in collaboration with the Jordan School District agree explaining in their school threat assessment policies and procedures “Because of ’zero tolerance’ policies to any type of threat, many school districts and law enforcement agencies across the country are guilty of overreaction to low level threats resulting in the stigmatization of children.” Although the situation with Cox involves alcohol and the Jordan policy mainly addresses violence, these are two of the main areas that have zero tolerance policies around them.


NASP outlines several alternatives to zero tolerance policies including effective solutions that involve families and community resources. They recommend violence prevention programs, social skills training and positive behavioral supports and early intervention strategies. In the same vein, Jordan established a threat assessment team that looks at each situation and determines a response based on the totality of the circumstances and the reality of actual threat. Both groups advocate communication and collaboration between all the parties involved in student well-being. School discipline historically fell into the academic realm, whereas currently it seems more in the juvenile justice realm. It’s time we put things back in perspective and move away from the “super predator” mentality that created the push towards harsher punishment with no discretion that exists within the schools.

As professionals, we need to move away from a cookie cutter approach to dealing with issues within our educational settings. Some situations warrant a rapid and harsh disciplinary response while others are more of a maturity issue that could be addressed with mentoring and strong adult support for growth. With so many schools having either school resource officers in their buildings and with many others having officers frequent the halls of their institutions, we play a large role in the environment. By facilitation and participating in joint task forces or teams, we can make a difference in the lives of children while still keeping school’s safe. NASP sums this up, “Although zero tolerance policies were developed to assure consistent and firm consequences for dangerous behaviors, broad application of these policies has resulted in a range of negative outcomes with few if any benefits to students or the school community.” Once again, we need to look at something that is not working, admit it, scrap it and come up with something better. We owe it to the kids.