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A Zero Tolerance Policy

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A zero tolerance policy is one which requires a severe penalty to be imposed which is unbending in its imposition, and often does not give allowance for extenuating circumstances. It is, as it states, completely intolerant of the behavior for which it requires consequences, no matter what. In their article on zero tolerance for Phi Delta Kappan, Russ Skiba and Reece Peterson define zero tolerance as "policies that punish all offenses severely, no matter how minor"(2).

According to Skiba and Peterson, the term zero tolerance evolved from federal and state drug enforcement policies in the 1980s. In the late 1980s, the concept began to catch on in schools. In 1989 school districts in Orange County, California, and Louisville, Kentucky, introduced zero-tolerance policies that mandated expulsion for possession of drugs or participation in gang-related activity. In New York, the superintendent of the Yonkers public schools proposed a zero tolerance program which included restricted access to schools, a ban on hats, immediate suspension for any school disruption, and increased use of law enforcement. By 1993, school boards across the nation were adopting zero tolerance policies which not only included drugs and weapons but also tobacco-related offenses and school disruption.

In 1994, Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, bringing zero tolerance school policies to a national level. This law requires states that receive federal funds to expel any student who brings a weapon to school for at least one calendar year. It also requires the student's referral to the juvenile justice system. One flexible aspect of this law is that it allows one-year expulsions to be modified by the chief administrator of each local school district on a case-by-case basis (First 8; Skiba and Peterson 2).

Two examples of the application of zero tolerance policies from a high school in suburban Harrisburg are the following. In the first instance, an honor roll student, a senior, began to act in a bizarre manner in the cafeteria during lunch one day. He was taken to the nurse, who suspected he had taken a hallucinogen. The dean of students was called on the scene. The young man admitted to the dean that he had bought several "hits" of LSD at the local mall the night before and had taken one just before lunch. The young man, who up until that point had been a good citizen of the school, was suspended from school, given a hearing with his parents and district administrators, and required to complete the rest of the school year in the district's alternative education program (a restrictive environment within the school district where students with severe discipline problems were sent to continue their education away from the regular student body). Two disadvantages to this student were his enrollment in high academic specialty courses, which could not be delivered in the alternative program, and his placement among students far more criminal than he. His placement jeopardized his acceptance at a first-rate college, for which he would have otherwise been an excellent candidate. The second example is the case of a female student, a high school junior, who prepared "Jello shooters" (Jello cubes made with alcohol) to take to a gymnastic competition where she was scheduled to be a participant. The student brought the Jello shooters to school on Friday, asked a teacher to store them in a school refrigerator, then took them to the hotel where the team was staying during the meet and proceeded to offer them to others at the after-meet party. This student, too, was typically a good citizen of the school. Nevertheless, she was suspended, a hearing before central administrators was set, and the outcome was her being required to attend the district's alternative education program for the remainder of the school year.

Similar cases have occurred involving so-called weapons. Recently, in a York County school district a kindergarten boy was suspended for five days because he had brought a nail clipper to school, and this item was construed as a weapon by school officials. The incident was widely publicized by the local media, and the boy's parents contested the fairness of the suspension, protesting that the boy was deprived of five days of his education and he didn't even understand what he had done wrong.

In each of these cases, a harsh penalty was imposed without consideration of circumstances such as intent, seriousness of the infraction, endangerment of others, past record, and suitability for the consequences for the student. The central controversy this paper will explore is the question of appropriateness of zero tolerance policies; however, other issues surface as well: are they fair to the school administrators who are asked to impose them? Are they proactive or reactive? Are they a deterrent or are they Draconian

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