Checking It Out: Zero Tolerance or Zero Sense?

It was just last spring that a Fairfax County high school student killed himself before he was expected to be expelled from school for being caught on campus with a small amount of marijuana.

The county policy was clear: Possession of marijuana on school grounds means automatic suspension and probable expulsion. It makes no difference if a student is using or selling.

At the time my colleague Marc Fisher wrote about how 17-year-old Josh Anderson took his own life on the eve of his disciplinary hearing, and how his parents believed that the no-tolerance policy pushed him to the edge.

Now we learn from media reports that a 6-year-old first grader could wind up in reform school for 45 days because he brought a camping utensil to his Delaware school. It was viewed as a weapon because it could be used not only as a fork and spoon but also as a knife.

The Christina School District where Zachary Christie is a student has a no-tolerance policy on weapons--even regarding Cub Scout utensils such as the one he brought to school, so excited was he to have become a Scout. This is, mind you, a boy who takes school so seriously that he sometimes wears a suit and tie to class.

Enough. It is past time for school districts to drop no-tolerance policies in which the consequence is often far worse than the offense.

For one thing, there is no solid research showing any positive effect on individual behavior or overall school safety. They are also cruel and counterproductive.

Zero-tolerance policies started out in the 1980s as part of a federal mandate regarding weapons at school. Local school districts then broadened the scope, including drugs, alcohol, threats and even cursing.

Some systems have backed off this approach, instead adopting other methods of affecting student behavior, including school-wide anti-bullying programs and early identification and intervention with troubled students. But zero tolerance is still the rule in many districts around the country.

For those who think that these policies are fair because all students are subject to the same rules, consider the fact that each school district has its own definition of what will and won’t be tolerated--and its own punishments.

There are, too, parents who say that kids who don’t do anything wrong don’t have anything to worry about. That is technically not true; a youngster guilty of nothing more than defending himself could wind up suspended or expelled.

The broader issue is that consequences for wrongdoing should be aimed at helping a young person learn from the experience. No two situations are identical. Principals should have the authority to be flexible when it seems wise, combining some disciplinary action with counseling, as well as the power to toss out those students who are incorrigible.

I’m guessing that Zachary isn’t one of them.

By Valerie Strauss  |  October 13, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Accountability , Checking It Out  | Tags: zero-tolerance policies Share This:  E-Mail | Technorati | | Digg | Stumble Previous: Enough With The Lists Already
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Zero Tolerance policies are an easy way for school systems to avoid lawsuits, plain and simple. By having one size fits all they don't have to worry about a cadre of lawyers descending on their offices claiming discrimination, recrimination, or any other kind of "-ation". They can easily dismiss exceptions by pointing to the "code of conduct" or whatever they call it and claim they're just following the procedure spelled out in black and white (and Spanish!). Sadly, these policies have real and long term consequences. Josh Anderson is dead and it's highly doubtful that Zachary Christie will ever again look at school positively.

Maybe what we really need is a zero tolerance policy toward zero tolerance policies.

Posted by: traderdad37 | October 13, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Ms Strauss is quite correct. She did neglect to mention one other large reason school districts moved to zero tolerance; legal suits. Whenever someone exercises discretion they open themselves up to accusations of double standards. When there is only a single standard - do the crime, do the time, without exception - there is no basis for a suit.
School districts do try and help students, but they will move mountains to avoid court cases. And mountains weigh a lot more than a 6-year old with a camp utensil.

Posted by: LoveIB | October 13, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

How many times will we hear of this nonsense? Everyone knows that thinking in absolutes is a sign of a weak mind. Until parents really press school administrators to stop this lunacy, it will likely continue.

Posted by: thermowax | October 13, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Many school districts nationwide are rethinking these senseless ZT policies-just not Fairfax County. Why should our school district show leadership on an important topic like this? That is just crazy talk.

Josh Anderson is a tragedy for all of us-that kid was so scared of the consequences of his youthful indiscretions, that he took his life. That speaks volumes about how screwed up the disciplinary system is.

FCPS School Board member Stu Gibson states that FCPS does not use ZT-that they take into account "other" factors when doling out punishments. Those "other" factors? A kid's grades, attendence, "attitude" toward school. Nevermind that these kids are most likely from a high poverty home with poor parental support. NOT THE KID'S FAULT-but FCPS will punish them more severely.

Until we vote idiots like Gibson out, nothing will change and the kids will suffer.

Posted by: takebackourschools | October 13, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

As long as PARENTS refuse to take responsibility for their childrens actions, then the schools will have to make these rules.

We want to place blame on everyone else for the faults of our children. While I am sad for the child that took his life before a hearing, Why did the parents not pay attention to this child??
How did a grade school child get to school with a utensil that he should not have had?

Are these the school systems fault?? NO. Quit trying to blame everyone else for the faults of families that are too busy making excuses for their children.

Posted by: kare1 | October 13, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Where does one begin with the glaring differences in these two cases? ... Having illegal drugs on your person (or in your locker, etc) is SO different than an excited 6 year old wanting to use his camping gear for meals.
The suicide of Josh Anderson is a tragedy, but why excuse the severity of his crime (marijuana possession, on or off school property, IS a crime)? Doesn't matter if he was using or selling-- he had it. It is sad that he felt it was something he couldn't overcome. He could have-- two of my HS classmates were suspended/expelled and stripped of their diplomas due to vandalism (graffiti) of the HS building a week prior to graduation. Talk about zero tolerance.
The six year old is a very different case. Were I the parent, we'd be looking into various private school options and shaking the dust of that public school system from our shoes. A kid that bright and eager probably needs more intellectual challenge than the public system can give him.
That said, the "zero tolerance" aspect of school disipline is swinging towards the ridiculous. Not in the matter of possession of illegal drugs, but in the matter of OTC remedies, even lip balm. I can only imagine how it must be for kids with life-threatening allergies or diabetes to carry their medical supplies.

Tort reform is really the answer here, to get people back to some semblance of sanity. I doubt its coming.

Posted by: dahozho | October 13, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

"How did a grade school child get to school with a utensil that he should not have had?"

Apparently, you've never been a child, never had children, and never interacted with anyone under the age of 18.

This question is breathtaking in its utter ignorance of children's behavior.

The only ignorance that is more breathtaking is the them of the entire post.

What, there is this whole huge cadre of parents who don't take responsiblity for their kids, to the extent that schools have to step in? Prove it.

What, kids never hide anything from their parents, and their parents have nothing to do 24/7 but monitor every single behavior of their child?

Once again, I reiterate, apparently the writer has never been around children or raised any of their own.

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | October 13, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

oh yeah, tort reform. There are just 100s of thousands of law suits strapping these schools into this postion.

Just because you heard about a silly case where someone sued McDonalds because they burned themselves with coffee does not an epidemic make.

Zero tolerance absolves the school authorities from thinking. They don't have to balance the consequences of their actions anymore, they can just point to the policy and say "sorry"

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | October 13, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

In this particular case, the Superintendent of that school has sheet for brains... Of course he has (had) the authority to say this baby did not present a weapon... He just chose not too...

dr. o

Posted by: ad4hk2004 | October 13, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

There is another case of a student in NY who is an honors student who did boot camp over the summer at 17 so he can join the military asap at the end of the year who was suspended the mandatory 5 days plus and extra 15 for having a 1.5 inch blade in his car not on his person, he too is a scout (Eagle). In an interview he said he made a mistake and excepted the 5 days but the school board tacked on 15 more days even when they said themselves they know he did not have any intent to use the "weapon". He now fears this will prevent him from getting into West Point which is where he hopes to go next year.

Posted by: flonzy3 | October 13, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

If there were enough public outcry, school officials and others who are officials of the state would not be able to abrogate their responsibility to make judgement decisions in order to avoid lawsuits. In fact, if the legal system is that broken, the individuals harmed by zero tolerance policies can and should sue.

Posted by: reddragon1 | October 13, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

We don't know why Josh Anderson took his own life. He left no note, and to tie cause and effect to one event gives the teenage mind too little credit for complexity. His parents erred by making him the poster child for zero tolerance as a way of, in my belief, dodging whatever responsibility they may have in his death.

The six year old episode is no doubt silly in isolation. But how do you guard against the next episode, just a little less sympathetic, or the one after that? As it is, this six year old has been taught that some rules are bad, which I'm not certain is what we want to be teaching kids, because it is a step from there to "I can decide which rules are bad, and I don't have to obey the bad ones."

Posted by: ggreenbaum | October 13, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Zero tolerance also makes administration simpler. If there is flexibility, there is an opening for legal action claiming favorable treatment for some. Court cases swallow scarce school administrative time like Monstro the whale.

Posted by: edbyronadams | October 13, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

There is no way anyone can honestly compare the 2 cases above. A 17 year old should and does know what he did was wrong. In that case there should be "no tolerance." However a six year old should be in a situation to learn from his mistake before such measures are taken.
With that said we still need to hold students accountable for their actions on all accounts. Schools should be able to make judgements in individual cases but it has been my expereince that parents make every excuse for their kids. Schools in this day have their hands tied. Parents will call discrimination if they can. Expelling a 6 year old is absolutely absurd, but I'm not supprised in people basing the school in the 17 year olds case as well. We have no more personal responsiblilty anymore.

Posted by: option1 | October 13, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry to have to side with the "rules are rules" crowd, because I don't really support them. But zero tolerance rules prevent bias. And anyone who believes that there is no bias in discipline decisions is not living in the real world. A straight-A student from a "good home" will receive better treatment than a failing student from a "troubled" home. The data support that. And I guess I'll shed the euphemism and just say it: a Black kid will receive harsher treatment than a white kid. So let the poor cub scout be suspended and home schooled by his mother who is available; great for him to have that option.

Posted by: drcommunication | October 13, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I think if the school board is serious about zero tolerance they should just execute little Zachary, then they can be certain there will be no re-occurrence, and the Board can sleep comfortably at night.

What kind of half-wit imposes any kind of punishment on a child for displaying normal behaviour? Time to get rational grown-ups on the school board.

Posted by: info77 | October 14, 2009 3:03 AM | Report abuse

Zero tolerance policies are for half wits and constitute another reason never to place your child in a public school. The zero tolerance supporters (who mysteriously go back under rocks in these situations) simply want a quota of good kids and good students to punish so they can balance out the bad kids. I think they delight in suspending the 'straight A good home kid' so they can say they are applying rules equally. The moron's who support such policies have obviously never raised a six year old.

Posted by: orange3 | October 14, 2009 6:14 AM | Report abuse

zero tolerance (and while we're at it, three strikes, mandatory sentencing, etc.) and anything else that is adopted in response to perceptions of abuse of discretion (let's get tough on crime and judges who are soft on crime) are all lazy cop outs that just leave you with arbitrariness and capriciousness from the other direction. treating different offenses the same (what happens with ZT, and the rest) is no less arbitrary and capricious, and often more, than treating similar offenses differently (unbridled and inexplicable sentencing variations). At least in the latter, the judge is explaining, or trying, the sentence. Under three strikes and mandatory minimums, the prosecutors cut deals behind the scenes, and there's no sunshine on the process.

the security consultant in the other story has it right - once kids perceive the ZT policy as absurd and those who enforce it as lacking sense, they loose respect for authority altogether.

if the people who run our schools can't handle the need to use common sense and are too lazy to think, we're all in trouble.

Posted by: JoeT1 | October 14, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

and for those who think that ZT policies and the like are necessary to avoid bias, think again. there are work arounds, and in the end, it's still lazy. if you just shoot everyone who violates the dress code, that would be fair? and you still have human beings trying to interpret the ZT policy. what's a weapon, etc.? don't think for one minute that human beings can write, interpret, or enforce ZT policies without bias even if that's the idea. a cop out is a cop out. if you don't want bias suits, don't act out of bias.

Posted by: JoeT1 | October 14, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

A nationawide policy of in-school suspensions only and each explusion reviewed and processed individually (similar to a court case and perhaps coupled with a court case) is the only way to avoid this insanity. We are depriving children of their educational rights and turning school administrators into robotic idiots who can only recite the "rights and responsibilities" and not think and act on their best judgement. Students have no rights and only the responsibility not to be caught.
Parent DO punish their children, then the schools add another wallop (whether the crime was committed at school or not - most the serious expulsions are for "crimes committed in the community" and if your kid is truly committed a crime, a few weeks-months later - the court system will pack on another punishment - usually in the name of providing services or education, but it will involved parents time and committment and money to complete. I see this as Triple Jeopardy for the same crime and a violation of our constitution. It can only happen since the victims of this injustice are kids, not adults. Most kids become victims of this system, once railroaded into it - then the powers that be ponder over low test scores and drop out rates....

Posted by: Nellie5 | October 14, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

There is no good explanation for zero-tolerance policies enforced on children who are not yet old enough to understand them themselves. There is zero educational value to zero tolerance policies. What is the Cub Scout untensil-wielding child supposed to learn from his proposed sentence;? Is a first grader developmentaly prepared to decern when and where it is appropriate to carry his possesions, as well as truly understand the consequences of making the wrong decision? To those who would say it is up to the parents, I challenge you to disagree that one of the most important things our children should learn in school is to how to play well with others. Like it or not, a teacher's/administrator's role is in part to assist with the social rearing of the children placed in their care; especially in the early formative years. A school district that adopts zero tolerance policies it only attempting to skirt this responsibility. Children being tried as adults at any level is a lazy cop out.

Posted by: KJR1 | October 14, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

So glad we don't have to deal with these moronic pedagogues. So much better to have our children learning and growing in the real world not the government monopoly institutional contrived one. To the parents of this child, so proud of his cub scout utensil, I say, let him learn in freedom. Home school him, he'll learn so much more at home.

Posted by: howdydoody1 | October 14, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

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