Zero-tolerance policies lack flexibility
By Dennis Cauchon, USA
Lisa Smith was an honor student, a cheerleader and a Student Council
member at Lakeview Middle School in the Dallas suburbs. She played violin in
the school orchestra, won awards at the science fair and had just finished a
highly praised project on the Holocaust for an honors history class. But,
one mistake later, the eighth-grader who had never known trouble faces five
months in a military-style boot camp. Her offense: She violated the school's
"zero tolerance" policy by bringing to school a 20-ounce bottle of Cherry
7-Up mixed with a few drops of grain alcohol.
Under the school's policy, officials say, they were compelled to give the
academic death sentence to Lisa, 14 - even if her only other trip to the
principal's office was to organize an orchestra fund-raiser, even if she is,
in the words of one teacher, "a sweetheart."
Lisa Smith's case is one of a growing number of examples in which
zero-tolerance policies have been attacked as inflexible, harsh and lacking
in common sense. The criticisms have increased in the past two years as
zero-tolerance policies have become standard operating procedure in the
nation's 109,000 public schools.
Supporters have credited zero-tolerance policies with helping make students
feel safer in school, but such policies also have come under fire for their
all-or-nothing approach. Even many supporters say the get-tough effort too
often fails to differentiate between good kids who make the typical mistakes
of adolescence and the unruly delinquents who can bring learning to a
Eighty-seven percent of all schools now have zero-tolerance policies for
alcohol and drugs, often resulting in mandatory expulsion, no matter how
small the infraction. Ninety-one percent of schools have adopted
zero-tolerance policies for bringing a weapon to school.
But policies vary widely on the severity of the punishment and the
discretion that school principals have.
Much of the criticism is aimed at the districts with the most rigid
policies. Kids have been kicked out of school for possession of Midol,
Tylenol, Alka Seltzer, cough drops and Scope mouthwash - contraband that
violates zero-tolerance, anti-drug policies. Students have been expelled for
Halloween costumes that included paper swords and fake spiked knuckles, as
well as for possessing rubber bands, slingshots and toy guns - all
violations of anti-weapons policies.
A second-grader from Alexandria, La., was booted for bringing her
grandfather's gold-plated pocket watch to school; the timepiece had a tiny
Supporters of policies that expel students for every offense say the policy
might be painful but is needed to send an unambiguous message that drugs and
weapons have no place in school.
But most of the nation's leading advocates of zero tolerance count
themselves among those worried by the excesses. They say school
administrators are undermining the credibility of zero-tolerance systems by
pursuing silly cases and failing to understand that zero tolerance includes
a range of punishments, including a note home or after-school detention.
Punish, don't destroy
"Zero tolerance and expulsion don't have to go hand in hand," says Ronald
Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in
Westlake, Calif. "Zero tolerance simply means all misbehavior will have some
sanction. It doesn't mean you bring the maximum punishment for every
"I'm terribly embarrassed when I read about some of these cases," says
Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the
nation's second largest teachers union, which has pushed hard for
zero-tolerance policies. "These are examples of adults not exercising proper
responsibility. I'm always in favor of just plain common sense."
In Lisa Smith's case, another eighth-grade girl brought alcohol to school
the same day. That girl's mix of Kool-Aid and Bacardi rum, along with Lisa's
concoction of Cherry 7-Up and grain alcohol, created quite a stir in the
school cafeteria as students passed the drinks around.
Eleven girls got expelled. The girl who brought the rum accepted her
sentence of expulsion and boot camp. Eight students said they didn't know
the drinks contained alcohol, and their expulsions were overturned. One
moved away. Lisa Smith hired a lawyer.
Her parents agree she should have been punished. They took away all her
privileges - telephone, TV, stereo - and reduced her room to just a desk and
"Expulsion and boot camp? The punishment far exceeds the severity of the
crime," says her father, Charlie Smith, a quality assurance inspector for an
"Punish her, yes, but don't try to destroy her. She made one mistake. She is
not a juvenile delinquent," says Ann Smith, her mother.
Lisa says she stupidly brought the alcohol to school on a whim, just to see
if she could get away with it. She poured the alcohol into the Cherry 7-Up
while her mother waited for her in the car. Now she fears that her academic
destiny will be permanently damaged by the severity of her punishment. "Just
the term 'boot camp' scares me. I'm not a very physical person," she says.
Her lawyer, David McCreary, says the penalty was more severe than if she had
been charged with a crime. If she had been convicted in juvenile court of
underage possession of alcohol, she would have faced a ticket and a fine,
not boot camp. School officials say they were just following the rules. Lisa
was expelled because "that's what school board policies specify," says
Lakeview Middle School Principal Steven Nauman, who has a doctorate in
"I have to agree with anything that's policy. My opinions are
inconsequential. Citizens may not like speeding and no-parking signs, but we
Lisa Smith's parents have asked a court to let her back in school on grounds
she was not treated fairly.
Zero-tolerance policies started sweeping the country in 1994 after Congress
required states to adopt laws that guaranteed one-year expulsions for any
student who brought a firearm to school. All 50 states adopted such laws,
which were required to receive federal funding.
Many legislatures went further, expanding the definition of a weapon and
further limiting the discretion of school administrators.
No clear effect
Encouraged by teachers' unions and some parents groups, state legislatures
and local school boards soon added zero-tolerance policies for alcohol,
cigarettes, illegal drugs, gangs, fighting, cursing and prostitution.
National statistics are sketchy but show no clear effect of zero-tolerance
policies when measured by the number of students who bring weapons to school
(6%); students who are victims of violent crime at school (3%); or
12th-graders who have tried alcohol (81%), cigarettes (65%) or illegal drugs
Even under zero tolerance, most students don't get kicked out of school,
even for the most serious offenses. According to a study in 1997 by the
Department of Education, only 31% of
students who brought a gun to school in 1995-96 were expelled. Forty-nine
percent were suspended for five or more days, and 20% were transferred to
alternative schools or programs. Only 18% of students committing a drug
offense were expelled from schools with zero-tolerance policies.
In some cases, school administrators used their discretion to lessen the
punishment. In other cases, the students couldn't be expelled because they
were special-education students, classified
as emotionally disturbed or suffering from attention deficit problems and
protected by laws covering the disabled.
Knife in a lunchbox
Shanon Coslet , a 10-year-old at Twin Peaks Charter Academy in Longmont,
Colo., was expelled because her mother had put a small knife in her lunchbox
to cut an apple. When Shanon realized the knife might violate the school's
zero-tolerance policy, she turned it in to a teacher, who told her she had
done the right thing. The child was expelled.
Shanon's expulsion brought national ridicule to the St. Vrain Valley School
District. She was featured on ABC's 20/20, which showed videotape
of the little girl weeping as the school board debated her fate.
"The biggest lesson we learned is that these policies don't work when the
message to principals and school administrators is 'You have no choice,'"
says Robert Moderhak, assistant superintendent of St. Vrain Valley schools.
After the publicity, Shanon was allowed to return to school. She testified
about her plight at a legislative hearing. Last year, the Colorado
Legislature changed the law to give school administrators more discretion. A
handful of other states and school districts also recently have given
administrators more flexibility in setting punishments.
School administrators say many schools depend on inflexible zero-tolerance
policies because officials fear being sued if they differentiate among
students. The lawsuits invariably challenge the discipline process and
whether the punishment is comparable with those given for similar offenses.
To protect themselves, most school districts now have lengthy discipline
codes that outline every offense and punishment, along with a detailed
Parents quick to sue
"We live in a litigious society today," says Edward Kelly, superintendent of
a 51,000-student system in Prince William County, Va., outside Washington,
D.C. "In the old days, you could handle something on an individual basis.
But today, parents are reluctant to accept a school's authority. They're
quick to sue if they don't like a punishment."
Prince William has a 20-page Code of Behavior that outlines 47 categories of
misbehavior and 26 possible punishments. The policy lists 39 banned weapons,
including guns, poison gas, darts and wallet chains. The zero-tolerance
policy applies to possession of items from drugs to Sony Walkmans.
"We were forced into developing these procedures by parents who will defend
their kids to the nth degree rather than asking, 'What can I do about my
child?' '' Kelly says.
Homer Kearns, superintendent of the 34,000-student Salem, Ore., school
system and one of the earliest supporters of zero tolerance, says some
school districts are too quick to expel students.
"It might be good public relations, but it doesn't deal with the real world.
Our policy allows kids to make mistakes without ending their academic
careers. You've got to be realistic. Kids make mistakes," Kearns says.
When a student is expelled in Salem, the school system retains
responsibility for the child's education.
It sends the student to a special program called a "structured learning
system" in which good behavior can earn a student re-entry into regular
The dangerous kids
But public schools wash their hands entirely of 40% of students expelled
under zero tolerance, sending them home for good. The Prince William school
system is one of those that sever their responsibility to expelled students.
"When you run alternative schools with an 8-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio,
that comes at a cost to the other students who are sitting in bigger
classes. The good student is shortchanged," Kelly says. "There are kids who
are dangerous. Is our greater responsibility to the one troubled kid or the
2,500 other students in high school?"
Arnold Goldstein, director of the Center for Research on Aggression at
Syracuse University and a strong supporter of zero-tolerance policies, says
the key to making the policy work is giving principals the discretion to
exercise fairness and common sense.
"Punishment has three components: swiftness, certainty and severity,"
Goldstein says. "We've got the severity part down only too well, but we're
not good on certainty and swiftness. And those are the parts that matter
most to making zero-tolerance policies work.