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 fingersbringing a LEGO toy with a gun to schoolwearing a hat adorned with plastic soldiersdoodling 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.


  1. I have to wonder to what degree you are being generous to state that such policies even started out with good intentions. The vast majority of such policies come from politicians, and the last time a politician had good intentions, he had just come in from a long day of splitting logs.

  2. My wife is a semi-school administrator. And she thinks they were mostly put in place with good intentions. But school staff can’t get rid of them. And elected school boards won’t get rid if them. What she heard from all. Three parents of kids she suspended last week, was a variation if “well what are you doing to the other kid. “. In all cases it was a clear case of one kid starting something and a parent refusing to acknowledge anything wrong. Blame someone else is the biggest problem for teachers.

    1. Adam, not being a smart-aleck, but what’s a semi-school? I tried googling it and all I got were hits for schools that teach you to drive big rigs. Now I’ve got this image I can’t shake, of a lady scolding a 6’9″ 350-pound truck driver with more ink than the Sunday paper, and he’s looking at the floor and sheepishly saying “Yes, Ma’am”. ;-)

      I guess it’s *possible* that there are still well-intentioned politicians out there (or that there were when this stuff came into being). One can’t prove a universal negative. But it’s also possible that Nessie and Sasquatch are out there.

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