When Schools Take Safety Too Far: The Origins of Zero-Tolerance Discipline

A “zero tolerance policy” is defined as a school or district policy that mandates predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses that are intended to be applied regardless of the seriousness of the behavior, mitigating circumstances, or situational context. Zero-tolerance policies arose in the 1980s out of fears about increasing violence in schools. After several events in which students were shot by fellow students, some principals began to crack down, implementing a zero tolerance policy “for any violence in schools.” The lasting effect of this policy is felt to this day, and manifests itself in the form of students being expelled for minor offenses like kicking a trash can or talking back to teachers; behavior that previously would have landed them in the principal’s office. While the Department of Education has issued new guidelines to steer districts away from such a harsh policy, they will nevertheless require 100 percent buy-in from the staff to have any effect. These kind of policies favor expulsion over trying to find productive ways to resolve behavioral issues. When a student is expelled, especially after one instance of bad behavior, it tells them they have been given up on. Zero tolerance policies take away the right of children and young adults to make mistakes, and learn from them. It is a stark foreshadowing of the way people are treated in the criminal justice system, where mandatory minimum sentences have created a climate where incarceration is valued over rehabilitation. Read the full article on KQED HERE