- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2007


The push by Rhode Island State Sen. Daniel J. Issa to do away with “zero-tolerance” polices in public schools has reopened the debate on the effectiveness of these rules systems. Mr. Issa’s bill, S.0394, would require Rhode Island public schools to mete out punishments for drug-, alcohol- or weapons-related infractions on a case-by-case basis. Currently, state law allows punishments to be lessened on such a basis, but it does not require each case to be reviewed individually.

Some states have already toned down their zero-tolerance policies and clearly others are following suit. Critics of zero tolerance cite any number of the dozens upon dozens of examples where students are suspended or expelled from school for such seemingly minor infractions as bringing a nail clipper to school, having a plastic axe attached to a fireman Halloween costume or even using an asthma inhaler. The term “zero tolerance” stems from a drug-enforcement technique adopted at the end of the Reagan administration to combat drugs in the United States. It eventually trickled down to the schools with President Clinton’s Federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 which mandated a one-year expulsion to any student who brought a firearm to school in order for the district to receive federal funding. The rules eventually came to include drug and alcohol offenses.

The success of these rules is predicated on the idea that all violations are punished the same, irrespective of the severity of the act and without the discretion of any school administrators. But the question is, do these policies work? The Indiana Education Policy Center’s “Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence” study explains that the goal of zero tolerance is to target serious offenses but by its very nature of punishing every violator equally, ends up severely punishing very minor offenses and rarely punishing serious ones. That’s because serious offenses are far more infrequent. Furthermore, the study concludes that there is an “almost complete lack of documentation linking zero tolerance with improved school safety.”

Proponents of these policies indicate that they deter bad behavior and allow dangerous students to be quickly and swiftly removed from the schools. We agree that violence and drugs in our schools must not be tolerated, but the attempt at avoiding arbitrary punishments only ends up disproportionately punishing well-behaved kids, as well as minority students, who make up the majority of suspended students across the board for these zero-tolerance infractions.

Furthermore, these rules don’t allow kids to learn from their mistakes. Locally, some Virginia schools have banned any physical contact, including handshakes, high-fives and hugs. This rigidity only sanitizes school culture and leaves the parents out of the parenting process. Kids need to learn boundaries without the fear of expulsion around every politically correct corner.

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