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    Has zero tolerance at school gone too far?

    Date: 04.01.09 | by Judge Tom.
    • A 13-year-old boy in Virginia accepted a breath mint from another kid at school.  He was suspended and required to attend drug-awareness classes. 
    • 13-year-old Savana Redding was an 8th grade honor student in Arizona when she was strip-searched by two women in the principal’s office.  Another student got caught with ibuprofen and claimed she got them from Savana. No pills were found on Savana.*
    • A New Jersey kindergartner was playing cops and robbers on the playground.  He used his finger as a pretend gun and was suspended.
    • An Ohio second-grader was suspended for drawing a gun, cutting it out and pointing it at classmates.
    • Other students across America have been disciplined for carrying cough drops, wearing black lipstick, and coming to school with a variety of colored hair.

    This is not an outline for a work of fiction.  These are real incidents of public school disciplinary actions under zero tolerance policies.  Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 requiring a one-year expulsion for any student who brings a firearm or bomb to school.


    Then in 1999, following the Columbine school shootings, legislatures and school boards tightened their policies.  Any infraction is swiftly addressed regardless of circumstance or intent.  For the most part, courts across the U.S. have supported the schools in their effort to maintain safe campuses.

    Savana – 2009

    Zero tolerance policies have been the subject of great debate.  Some studies show that they have failed to decrease the number of weapons, drugs, or violence at school.  Psychology Professor Russell Skiba of Indiana University commented: “We end up punishing honor students to send a message to bad kids.  But the bad kids aren’t getting the message.”**

    Some states are considering easing up on zero tolerance laws.  Requiring the school to call the police for every plastic butter knife brought to school [to spread peanut butter or cut cookies, etc], or thrown eraser, or inhaler in an asthmatic’s pocket may bring about change in these laws.  Florida, Texas, Utah, Mississippi and Rhode Island are a few of the states reconsidering their positions.

    What do you think?  Have you or a friend gotten into trouble for violating your school’s zero tolerance policy?  Do you understand why the rule exists and its goals?  Should there be exceptions to the rule or something less than “zero” tolerance?

    *The Supreme Court decided Savana’s case in June, 2009.  Without mentioning “zero tolerance” they found that the school acted unreasonably in conducting the strip-search and that her 4th Amendment rights were violated.  Savana’s case against the school district will proceed, but is expected to settle out-of-court.

    **[taken in part from The Rutherford Institute article “Teaching School Children to Live in a Totalitarian Society” by John W. Whitehead, 4/1/09]  

    Columbine gunmen Harris and Klebold in cafeteria

    April 20, 2009 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine High School tragedy.  Eric Harris (18) on the left and Dylan Klebold (17) randomly shot and killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves in the school cafeteria and library.

    Update: In March, 2009, a high school girl in Virginia was caught taking a birth control pill at school.  She claimed she had to take it at the same time every day, but didn’t follow the school’s policy regarding prescription medications.  She was suspended for two weeks with a recommendation to the school board for expulsion.  Check out the full story here.  

    The latest:  In October, 2009, first grader Zachary Christie of Newark, Delaware was suspended for five days for bringing a knife to school.  He had just joined the Cub Scouts and was excited about a new camping tool – a Coleman three-in-one utensil that included a knife, fork and spoon.  Six-year-old Zachary wanted to use it at lunch.  A hearing before the school board was scheduled to consider his case and possible placement in a 45-day alternative program.  In the meantime Zachary is being home-schooled.

    Update:  On October 13, 2009, the board voted unanimously to  change its zero-tolerance policy.  It also granted Zachary’s request to return to regular school without further discipline.

    Read this article from Education Week suggesting common sense as a factor in enforcement of zero-tolerance policies.

    August, 2011: In a Columbine-like incident in Louisiana, three teenagers, all age 15, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism. Calling themselves “Day Zero” a plot to shoot classmates on the first day of school was uncovered. The boys also intended to shoot police officers who arrived at the school, a specific faculty member and finally, themselves. It appeared that they had been planning the attack over the summer. If convicted of the charges in juvenile court, they face incarceration until they turn 21.

    In a similar incident, 17-year-old Jared Cano was arrested on August 17, 2011 in Florida. Jared was expelled from his high school in March, 2010 for a weapons violation. A tip to police led to a search of his home (with his mother’s consent). They discovered bomb-making materials and Facebook messages indicating his plan to bomb the school on the first day of the new school year, August 23, 2011. He wrote that he hoped “to cause more casualties than were suffered at Columbine. . . .Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten.” Jared remains detained on charges of possession of bomb-making materials, cultivation of marijuana in his bedroom and threatening. Without specifying what he did, he posted on Facebook the day before his arrest that “i jut did the dumbest thing ever!”

    A 7 year-old boy in Mesa, Arizona was afraid someone was going to kidnap him. He found a gun in his mother’s closet and took it to school. While on the school bus with approximately 50 other students, the gun went off and hit an empty seat. No one was injured. Although the school district has a zero-tolerance policy regarding weapons, the administration took the incident under study to “do what’s fair.” He could be expelled if the policy is implemented without exception. This happened on January 6, 2012 and involved a .22-caliber target pistol.

    An indication of the consideration being given zero-tolerance policies comes from the Philadelphia School District. In September, 2011, changes were initiated to more quickly address cases where students were being disciplined for violating the policy. Since suspension or expulsion is not always warranted, a review process has been implemented to resolve the situation sooner than later. See here for the story posted on Education Week on September 16, 2011.

    In January, 2014, the Obama administration recommended that zero tolerance policies be discontinued. Far too many students, particularly Hispanic and African-American students, were being suspended or expelled for minor infractions. They cited studies that showed students who were suspended even once were more likely to drop out. President Obama said “We can make classrooms good places for learning for everybody without jeopardizing a child’s future.”

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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    2 Comments subscribe to these comments.

    • julie
      Thu, 14 May 2009 at 08:58

      -good discussion :)

    • Rek
      Tue, 23 Jun 2009 at 03:37

      It very well seems they are going over the limits of what that law states. The Zero Tolerance was created to help us but when the teachers and principle go after little stuff like birth control and ibuprofen it looks very bad towards the school. I can understand they don’t know what the medication is but if it’s a prescribed one how can they get the student in trouble for that? What if they really need it?

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