A Second Look at Zero Tolerance

By Christine Duchouquette

Public education leaders face the task of creating safe and secure schools. With the shooting tragedies of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook looming in the minds of parents, students, and communities, it is no wonder that many erroneously believe that school violence is on the rise.

One way school districts and states have attempted to combat school violence is through the implementation of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. These policies are rooted in federal drug enforcement policy and were made into law by President Clinton’s Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) of 1994.

The zero-tolerance approach included a mandated one-calendar-year expulsion for any student caught in possession of a firearm, administrator referral to the juvenile/criminal justice system for students in violation, and evaluation authority on expulsion cases for districts’ chief administrators.

An article published by the Kentucky Children’s Rights Journal in 2000 describes how the overly broad policies of the GFSA essentially morphed “typical misbehavior” -- lesser offenses than gun or other violence -- into actions requiring harsh and swift punishment that have the potential to disrupt a student’s education.

Such policies have enormous consequences for students. The exclusionary disciplinary practices inherent in zero-tolerance policies have the potential to compromise students’ abilities to graduate from high school, pursue higher education, or get well-paying jobs.

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