Photo of lockersOne of most controversial areas in education is zero-tolerance policies, which commonly involve situations in which students are found in possession of drugs or weapons on school property. These policies resulted from the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Zero-tolerance policies stir up debate because, by their very nature, they are rigidly strict. According to an article in Educational Administration Quarterly, “zero-tolerance policies are ‘school or district polic[ies] that [mandate] predetermined consequence/s or punishments for specific offenses.'”

The issue with some zero-tolerance policies is that, in many instances, they remove common sense from the equation. Students sometimes make poor choices. When this occurs, a student’s actions must be evaluated to determine the context in which they occurred, and the intent and level of understanding of the child who committed the act. If a punishment is warranted, it should be aligned with the negative choice the student made in the first place. According to McNeely, Nonemaker, and Blum, “… what are legally sound policies for schools do not equate necessarily to developmentally sound policies for children.” Therefore, we see a constant struggle between what is best for all students and what is best for the student who made the poor choice.

News media outlets feature stories of students being expelled from school for making a gun symbol with their fingers, bringing a toy gun or knife to school as kindergartners, or threatening another student. In most of these instances, the offending students were expelled from school as a result of the district’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons or bullying. According to Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of Juvenile Law Center, “Often, punishment for offenses under zero-tolerance policies are harsh and automatic, with seemingly little consideration given to individual circumstances and to teaching children about fairness, justice, and common sense.” When school policies are implemented without taking some degree of common sense into consideration, the world of education becomes fair game for criticism.

In our small school district, there have been several instances in which a strictly upheld zero-tolerance policy would not have been the best course of action for students, either educationally or developmentally. Likewise, we can pinpoint instances in which our flexible weapons policy allowed us to do what we believed was best for all involved. In two situations, the students brought weapons to school and chose to tell other students about the location of the weapons, further drawing attention to the situation. In all cases, we discovered the presence of the weapons in the building as a result of reports from other students. One student in question went as far as to show the weapon to another student.

In both situations, the students in question had extensive disciplinary histories prior to entering the school in possession of a weapon. In one instance, an expulsion hearing was held, and the school board upheld the recommendation for expulsion. In another case, the student’s family recognized the child’s need for additional help beyond the scope of a regular classroom setting, and they opted to waive their right to an expulsion hearing. The family enrolled the student in an alternate educational setting with the option to return at semester’s end with the superintendent’s approval. Both of these incidents are examples of a weapons policy functioning properly and allowing for the flexibility necessary to do what is best for the students in our district.

We have a responsibility as educators not only to teach students math and reading, but also to help them navigate their way through childhood-learning the differences between right and wrong, what is acceptable behavior and what is not under increasingly difficult familial and life circumstances. When misguided policies are added into a system in which more and more children are making poor, and in some cases life-threatening decisions, the result is a recipe that can lead to disastrous outcomes. For this reason, school policies must be carefully structured with the well-being of the whole child in mind, not as the result of knee-jerk reactions to unfortunate situations.

A Large Pocket Knife

In another, separate instance, a primary school student was found to be in possession of a large pocket knife. A fellow student found the knife in this student’s book bag during indoor recess. This student did not threaten to hurt anyone or even remove the knife from his book bag. He brought it to school to show his friends who did not believe his father had given him a knife. Although his intentions were innocent, this student made a poor choice by bringing the knife to school. In this case, a strictly upheld zero-
tolerance policy would have resulted in this young elementary student being expelled from school. Thankfully, district policy allows for common sense to be taken into account. The student certainly needed to know that this choice was a poor one, and, as such, disciplinary measures were taken. Expulsion, however, was not given serious consideration.

It is important to note that the preceding incidents of students intentionally bringing weapons into school are not the only scenarios. Another example might involve a student who lives on a farm and is helping cut twine off of bales of hay before school. The student is using a small pocket knife that he places in his pocket that morning and forgets he has prior to coming to school.

Later in the school day when it falls out of his pocket and another student sees it, he remembers. As soon as he sees the knife, he immediately takes it to the teacher to explain-that he has not shown the knife to others, threatened any students, or even remembered that he had the knife in his possession that day. According to an inflexible zero-tolerance policy, this student should be expelled from school for no less than one calendar year. 

Common Sense Must Prevail

Advocates of zero-tolerance policies argue that removing students who violate such policies from school diminishes the threat of violence and allows those who adhere to school rules and regulations to focus on their education in a safe and secure environment.

This is where common sense must prevail. The student in this scenario had no disciplinary history, no questionable behaviors to this point, and turned the knife over to the teacher the moment he discovered it was in his possession. This is no different than a high school student walking into the school building, and upon discovering a utility knife in his pocket, immediately giving it to the principal to avoid getting into trouble.

The fear is that “normal,” non­violent youth behavior and misbehavior has become further criminalized, all in the name of safety, whereas data indicate that schools are the safest places to be. Less than 1 percent of violent crimes against students occur in schools. Although there have been several incidents in recent years in which adults and students have made tragic decisions that have resulted in injury or loss of life in schools, instances such as the preceding examples are rarely indicative of such behavior.

Another concern with inflexible zero-tolerance policies revolves around schools’ basic purpose: education. Students who are severely punished lose key educational time and opportunities. “Opponents assert that there is no evidence of a causal relationship between zero-tolerance policies and declining school violence,” says J.A. Sughrue, author of “Zero tolerance for Children: Two Wrongs Do Not Make a Right” in Educational Administration Quarterly. “More importantly, they argue that removing students from schools and not providing them with access to education may do more harm to society in the long term.” 

One-Year Expulsions?

Many zero-tolerance policies demand a strict one-year expulsion of a student. In our district, policy states that after the 10-day mandatory out-of-school suspension and formal expulsion hearing, parents/guardians have 30 days to find an alternative educational placement. If they are unable to find a suitable alternative, the district will then provide an academic tutor to work with the student for five hours per week. Obviously, five hours per week of instruction cannot replace an entire weeklong curriculum, so the reduced quality of education for these students is significant. In the incidents cited previously, our school district ensured that students had a suitable alternative educational experience. Unfortunately, in many places, students who end up in this situation suffer from the harshness of the policy, and their education is compromised as a result.

Ensuring Success

If our job as educators is to provide students with the skills they need to be successful in life-when we know that the world is not black and white but rather filled with a host of grey areas-we are doing our students a great injustice by punishing too harshly for developmentally appropriate mistakes.

Often there are incidents in which students’ actions require justifiable punishments. Ultimately, students learn the difference between right and wrong through a variety of experiences throughout their school years. Weapons policies, if implemented with a degree of common sense and flexibility, can be helpful to this process.

Jeff Keeling is the principal at Commodore Perry High School, and Michelle Young is the principal at Commodore Perry Elementary School in Hadley, PA.