Zero tolerance policies were first enacted as a way to enforce suspension and expulsion policies in response to drugs, weapons, and violent acts in schools. Critics of zero-tolerance policies argue that these policies have come to mean district wide policies to mandate harsh and pre-determined punishments for a wide variety of offenses, but zero-tolerance policies have proven to be effective in keeping schools safe, especially in areas where violence is a major problem.

Offenses Addressed

Zero-tolerance policies are enacted as a way to address weapons, drugs, and violent offenses as a way to protect students and maintain a safe learning environment most conducive to learning. The U.S. Department of Education and Center for Safe and Responsive Schools found that at least 75 percent of schools report having zero-tolerance policies for offenses such as firearms, weapons, alcohol, drugs, violence, and tobacco.

Consequences and Punishments

Suspension is the most frequently used consequence when it comes to responding to these various offenses. Expulsion is also used, but more commonly for more serious offenses such as weapons or firearms charges. Broad policies can mean that minor and major offenses receive the same treatment, but if consequences are outlined along with offenses, schools can manage this problem of sweeping consequences for all offenses.

Parent and Student Reactions

Although students may see suspensions and expulsions as unfair, parents and community members are strongly in favor of increased disciplinary punishments if they fear the safety of children is at risk. If schools are clear when outlining punishments and consequences for certain behaviors, students know what will happen should they choose to engage in these offensive behaviors. Most schools put these guidelines in their handbooks. Schools should also be sure to engage in positive interactions with parents and students first, before any intervention should be needed, to ensure a positive school climate.

Sending the Right Message

The goal of zero-tolerance policies is to have a uniform district wide approach to both discourage disruptive behavior and maintain a safe school and learning environment for teachers and students. Zero-tolerance policies remove difficult students quickly, a fast-acting intervention that sends a clear message to all students of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Teachers are especially supportive of zero-tolerance policies that help with classroom management and keep their workplace safer. It is the responsibility of schools to protect teachers and students while also addressing inappropriate or dangerous behavior that can affect other students. Zero-tolerance policies can regenerate urban environments, reducing the amount of “dead ground” used for drug dealing and protecting school property from vandalism. Raising the standard of living in high crime areas is a major goal and zero-tolerance policies may send the necessary message to improve those areas.