The Misguided Intentions of “Zero Tolerance” Policies in Schools

Zero tolerance policies may have been created in the pursuit of justice and safety, but they have proven themselves to be anything but.
Schooldesks
 (MChe Lee)

Google “zero tolerance policies” and you’ll find numerous examples of common sense thrown out the window, e.g., children as young as eight years old suspended, expelled, kicked out of school, and/or reported to the authorities for such dangerous and threatening activities as making guns with their fingers, bringing a LEGO toy with a gun to school, wearing a hat adorned with plastic soldiers, doodling on their desks, and wearing rosary beads.

Originally intended to confront legitimately serious threats such as students bringing firearms and drugs into schools, “zero tolerance” policies have evolved in the wake of atrocities like Columbine to become a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with infractions — regardless of student intent and history or the actual scope or nature of the “damages” caused by the student’s behavior.

John W. Whitehead–the source of many of the examples listed above – described the results of “zero tolerance” back in 2011:

What we are witnessing, thanks in large part to zero tolerance policies that were intended to make schools safer by discouraging the use of actual drugs and weapons by students, is the inhumane treatment of young people and the criminalization of childish behavior.

I confess that I’ve read cases like the ones listed above with a certain measure of bemusement; they struck me as completely absurd. However, that changed when my five-year-old started kindergarten.

As I’ve written before, my son has an almost preternatural talent for turning anything into a weapon. (Earlier today, I heard him and his younger brother planning the destruction of numerous bad guys with nothing more than a toy airplane and an electronic toy.) True, there are times when it becomes a bit excessive, but much of the time, I laugh it off because he’s my son. I know him, how he thinks and plays, and the content of his (burgeoning) character. I know that for every minute he spends blowing up bad guys, he’ll spend 5 minutes caring for his baby sister; for every elaborate ninja combat strategy he concocts, he’ll spend just as much time drawing, painting, or trying to do science, MythBusters style.

But what about future teachers and school administrators who don’t know him so well? Or worse, those who do know him well but whose hands are tied by “zero tolerance” policies so that when they see my son – or any of his classmates, for that matter – talk about “shooters” or make laser gun sounds, they have to respond in a draconian manner?

Fortunately, it seems that common sense is beginning to prevail. According to NPR, the government is encouraging educators throughout the nation to ease up on “zero tolerance” policies, citing their inequities and lack of efficacy. Or, as the National Association of School Psychologists puts it:

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. Rather than increasing school safety, zero tolerance often leads to indiscriminate suspensions and expulsions for both serious and mild infractions and disproportionately impacts students from minority status backgrounds and those with disabilities.

I have the utmost respect for teachers and school administrators. Theirs is a demanding and often thankless job, which is shameful considering the critical role they play in the development and future of our children and communities. I have no respect, however, for policies that may have been created with good intentions but have proven themselves to be ineffective, unfair, and unjust. Such policies may have been created in the pursuit of justice and safety, but they have proven themselves to be anything but.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .