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Zeroing in on zero tolerance

A recent suspension of a 6-year-old in Delaware is causing many parents to question schools' one-punishment-fits-all approach.

By GreatSchools Staff

Who knew that following the Boy Scout’s motto — “Be prepared” — could land you in reform school?

For 6-year-old Zachary Christie of Newark, Del., bringing a Swiss Army-style pocketknife to school was simply a matter of being able to eat lunch with his favorite utensil. But when a teacher noticed the combination fork/spoon/knife — a gift from his parents for Cub Scout camping trips — and reported it to the principal, the first-grader’s resulting punishment caught the attention of parents nationwide.

Per the Christina School District’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons, Zachary was suspended immediately for five days and sentenced in October to 45 days in a reformatory. After his mother collected more than 29,000 signatures online protesting the decision and appeared before the school board, his sentence was commuted — and ammendments were made to the student code of conduct regarding consequences for kindergartners and first-graders.

Or consider the case of 13-year-old Kyle Hebert, a bullied middle-schooler in the Christina district who received the same punishment last May after, according to Kyle, another student dropped a pocketknife in his lap. (Rather than send Kyle to an alternative education program, his mother opted to homeschool him instead.)

In the wake of the Columbine and Virginia Tech tragedies, many school districts adopted zero-tolerance policies on weapons possession, but not without controversy. Because of concerns over potential racial discrimination — based on studies (pdf) showing that students of color were more likely to be suspended and expelled than their white peers — districts like Christina have given less discretion to school officials in such cases.

However, as many of Zachary’s supporters have pointed out, does following the letter of the law trump using common sense to dole out appropriate punishment?

While an annual report (pdf) by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics shows that homicides and rates of nonfatal violence in schools have dropped over the past 10 years, it’s not clear what role zero-tolerance policies have played in making campuses safer. (The same report also noted that the percentage of students who were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property has fluctuated between 7 and 9% from 1993 through 2007.) Some experts believe that zero tolerance sends students the wrong message by focusing on equal rather than equitable treatment: A 2006 study (pdf) by the American Psychological Association found that such policies may result in increased disciplinary problems and dropouts in middle and high schools.

Does your child’s school have a zero-tolerance policy? Do you agree with mandatory sentencing, or should schools follow a punishment-fits-the-crime model? Sound off on school discipline here.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/9/2012:
"It very sad that a parent had to go out and get people to sign a paper before a school does anything. The school has a zero-tolerance policy!! My school has a little bully ... A the parent does not think the bully needs help. This little girl has become a threat to my gril , To think that a rope was around her neck, where she could have been killed or left crippled had there been a tug with just the right force still causes me to cringe. But a slap on hand to this child and that it! And you can not play with your class mates. That is it! Really? And this little girl been doing lots of things to other children in this school. How many times is this school going to close there eyes? And really step up and do something. What is needed in order to get help for a little girl screaming for help, and attention who is going to be her advocate? Is anyone going to do anything to help this child, or will the pain and anger inside her lead her to act out with even more violence? Nothings being done to correct her; teaching her a healthy way to redirect her anger. Nothing you have done in the past has helped, and yet you will once again repeat the punishment and hope for the best. I find your actions to be unacceptable, she will do it again and my hope is the next child will be able to protect themselves from her anger. I cannot believe you are aware of this situation and that continue to place other students in danger. a loaded gun and unless someone can reach her, unless she gets help, someone is going to get hurt. Do you want the responsibility for that child's life to be on your hands? The little girl needs Help!!!!!!! "
11/28/2011:
"There are two issues here. One is that 45 days for a 6 year-old in a reformatory - a child with no previous record - is both extreme and unproductive. Indeed, I'd say it's counterproductive. A 6 year old would leave a 45 day stint in reform school very scared and scarred. Is the problem really that schools have been too tolerant of the presence of weapons?? Is that why students bring weapons to school? And did this child think school was the same thing as a Cub Scout camping trip?? Because the other issue is that it's clearly unwise on the part of the parents to allow such a young child - for the child's sake - to have free access to any knife. This six year old was clearly not old enough to know when and where knives are allowed. "
11/21/2011:
"A great article that Douglas County School District in CO needs to read as zero tolerance is so up their rearends they can't even comprehend punishment fits the crime. Everyone involved in an incident is punished equally the same!!!! Children can't even play snowball fight with one another without getting suspended!!!! "
11/7/2011:
"My child was unlawful set up for a "cheating" incident he didn't do. He was then punished so serverly we had to get a court order for the Marion County School district to quit. The child was subjected to bulling by other students that the principal failed to stop. Yet the principal turned a blind eye to others that actually "cheated" They then used the incident to unlawfully disallow the child the next gifted program. The prior Year, the child was in a class where he and the class were abused, this child developed an incurable medical condition because of the abuse and we have had to get counseling for this child. While searching for a psycholgist another said that her neice had been in counsel after that class experience too. The teacher is believed to be the Rubber room teachers from NY and had child abuse charges with child protective service when she came to Florida. Funny this school district is involved in discrimination activities, altering other children's records, blogging false matterial to the local newspaper, falsifing data to the Federal Department of Education. But the Florida and Federal Department of Education does no enforcement. Remember Atlanta the Governor finally had to invoke its own investigation on the cheating in schools and in Broward County Florida it took the Grand Jury findings on Corruption --- Wonder when Ocala will get its investigation? "
09/2/2011:
"You can't effectively deal with bullying in a piecemeal fashion which is what 'zero tolerance' for bullying is. 'Zero tolerance' treats the symptom only and doesn't address the cause of the problem and so 'zero tolerance' will never be a cure. Why are the bullies bullying?? Bullying is not a happy behavior- children don't bully because they're happy. Children sometimes bully on impulse and because they have not been taught not to. We can't command away the impulse to bully or command away a child's unhappiness and anger. Teachers and Principals need to model the behavior they expect from children in school. Do all the teachers speak with respect and regard to the children? Do teachers fawn over some children and give the cold shoulder to others? Is there room for every child to shine? Do we publicly shame children in the school? Emphasizing to the children that they are all valued is the first stand against bullying. Every principal should be at the front door every morning greeting every child by name. Every child in the school should know they are known. A school must create itself as a community of shared purpose and common endeavor. And a school must take the stance with children that 'we are here to serve', we are here to make sure your day is a safe one and a good one. Only with statements like that - openly declared - can children really come to feel that their school is their community and only in a community can the bullies come to lose the anger and unhappiness that comes out as bullying. "
07/19/2010:
"what is happening in our society? When we stop offering 'tolerence' to our students, we have stopped teaching 'tolerence'. This is sad. Zero Tolerence makes zero common sense. PERIOD. "
01/15/2010:
"Last year my son was a third grader. During this school year, a student allegedly brought ammunition to school but no type of weapons. This child has been said to have had anger problems and outbursts in the past. To my knowledge he was only given an in-school suspension. My son was in his class and he was rightfully concerned. I working in law enforcement do not believe that the school did enough, standard protocol or not. Kids are being suspended out of school for fighting but a child allegedly brings ammunition to school from home and the child is still in the school right after that. Inconistent? I beleive so. I offered all the help in the world to the principal and to this day have yet been asked to assist. Any advice or opinion regarding this issue? Thanks!"
11/25/2009:
"My family has recently had our eyes open to the policy of zero tolerance. My grandson accidently took a pocketknife to school. He was immediately suspended for 10 days and may end up being expelled for a year and sent to an alternative shcool. My problem with this is that this is a good kid, never been in trouble before and makes decent grades and he makes a big mistake and they want to criminalize him. I believe the 10 day suspension was warranted, however from there I think he should be allowed back in school. There was no intent to harm and no violence occurred. Instead of expelling for a year, counsel him and allow him to do community service. Prisoners in our prison system get treated better than our kids in school. One size does not fit all."
11/16/2009:
"I believe and wish to have mutual respect Upon all. Adult at first. If every one behave as a civilized person, Know his Boundry, Respect one another, Do'nt posess what's not his/her's. mind theire own business, thre will be no reason to be scared. The law is very clear: No one should take the law in his own hand. Kidds are the Immage of theire PARENTS, If a child have in his/her posession any form of weppon PARENTS are to be BLAMED First and put on trial and held Responsible for Theire kidds. Kidds go to learning school not Deffence Deppartement. They should have in theire posession no more or less than school supply."
11/12/2009:
"Our son was bullied and beaten up once just outside the local middle school because he had excelled in sports in the gym class. Needless to say, after that he didn't do well. Then he grew big and strong and went to high school there he defended a young man who was being threatened and bullied. Unfortunately he had a length of chain in his bookbag so he was suspended. The bully wore his chain attached to a wallet with a rock in it - so he was 'ok' because that was part of his 'dress'. Our son got kicked out of school for the remainder of the year. He finished high school on line as we never wanted him to return to that environment. The school principal sat at the informal hearing and blatently lied about our son. When he got caught in his lies, he tried more lies. To make the situation worse, it was a black on white situation with our son being white and all other parties, bully, picked on kid, principal and school psychologist being black."
11/12/2009:
"Zero tolerance policies make zero sense! My daughter's high school issues a detention if a student is late to class, no exceptions. This occurs no matter what the reason. While I agree that continual tardiness is not helpful, there are times when one has challenges. (ie: injury, bodily functions) Policies should be able to be guided by intelligence, not set in stone."
11/12/2009:
"My DD is in a private Catholic school now and they are more along the lines of disiplining each incident accordingly. But the elementary school she was in before was outrageous. Kids were expelled for simply talking about going squirrel hungting with their grandpas, or talking about the knife they got for Christmas. My DD was even threatened by a teacher for saying that Christmas is about Jesus' birthday-when the teached had asked what Christmas is about! Yet this same school allows children of other faiths to pray and speak freely in school, allows bullies to steal from younger kids, and allows boys to feel up girls right in the middle of class qith no prepercussions! Sadly it's not that parents aren't willing to pay more in taxes to provide a safe environment. Instead the district refuses to spend more on anything but improvements to their athletic fields and teacher benefits. Not one dime more is spent on education or safety-not 1!"
11/11/2009:
"Your US public schools are just going to be in more truancy and disciplinary problems regarding students today who attend public school. They are taught on the day before classes start not to bully other guys. What ever possessed you for thinking in such derogatory methods in dealing with delinquents and regular students? Do you really think that negative pressure would actually help? On the contrary, you would actup in class or with other students if all you heard nonstop was do not bully!! Teaching in love and patience is what children really need to hear and see modeled by these adults."
11/11/2009:
"As long as parents continue to use the mindset that it sounds good but never realize their own child could be caught up in zero tolerance, districts will not change policy. You have educated, trained personel who can not or will not decide what is or is not reasonable;or are they not so educated and trained? The other day at a parent meeting, a parent said they hated something. They were immediately reprimanded by a staff member that 'we don't use language like that here'. I had to say excuse me, don't tell an adult what to say or do. Zero tolerances are no better than bullying. The kids use them to do just that, bully other kids by setting them up. And as I remember alternative schools were initially designed for those students who were incouragible, in trouble with the law and unwilling to change their behaviour. Now it is punishment for 93 policy violations and if they don't want to give a waiver they just don't. Do you really believe the education in the alternati! ve schools are as equal to the regular schools? No they are not, it is just a holding area so that these kids are not in regular classrooms. Teachers unions helped craft these policies. Zero tolerance has to be removed from our schools. Check out how many adults supervise the movement of kids to, from and inside the building. Bet you thought the teachers helped supervise. Wrong they do not, you are lucky if five adults are supervising. Now ask yourself what would they do to a private daycare that had a ratio of 200 kids to one adult. Close it down. This is a red flag that all parents have ignored. Have you read your students code of conduct handbook? You're in for a heck of a read. And when they try to tell you they survey the kids and parents and things are good - beware those surveys are crafted to get answers to make the schools look good. This is a parent with their eyes wide open and not liking the scenery from the adults who run our educational process. Beca! use that is what they have made it into - a process."
11/11/2009:
"My school has that kind of a policy, and I agree with it. It is a high school, so if you bring in an eating utensil, you won't get suspended. I like this policy because I feel safe at my school."
11/10/2009:
"Zero tolerance policies are based on fear, mostly of lawsuits. There is no common sense. The teachers have been stripped of decision making capabilities in exchange for a rigid, one size fits all policy that is ridiculous. I leaves no place for honest mistakes and teaches extreme paranoia to students. The answer lies in using the least common of all senses, common sense."
11/10/2009:
"The real problem here is that there is improper PARENT education. A child should know the rules if his or her parents pay attention themselves and communicate with that child. However, one size fits all never really fits 'all'. I am horrified by the 7% to 9% figure on the children being threatened. That should be a zero with proper supervision at schools. Obviously we taxpayers have not been willing to foot the bill to protect all children, which is a disgrace. Finally, the law recognizes that children cannot even distinguish between reality and fantasy before 7 or 8. (They are still afraid of the Boogeyman or maybe Zombies at that age.) Why are the schools not recognizing the diminished maturity of such little children? If they were perfect and didn't need to learn many, any things, there would be no need to call them 'minors'. Sorry, the rant sort of happened as I thought of all the kids who might be afraid to go to school today. Thanks for the microphone. "
11/10/2009:
"If we want our children to use their minds productively, our school administrators should be using theirs also. what happened to role models?"
11/10/2009:
"Our boys attend Catholic schools & neither have zero tolerence policies . Each situation is addressed on a case by case basis . In the twenty years of their on going education ( we have four kids ) there has never been a serious - life threatening incident in their schools . Addressing security - years before Columbine these schools have had very restricted access,CCD on DVR 24/7 & plain clothes off duty police officers at each school 7am to 4pm"
11/10/2009:
"In light of this, it is even more surprising that my child was not allowed to read a book brought from home to read in PRIVATE READING TIME because it had religious content. Being too strict regarding weapons does not seem wise, but being too strict about private reading material (that was not promoting anything dangerous) seems even worse. Such negativity will not likely benefit children."
11/10/2009:
"I am not a fan of the zero-tolerance policy, especially in elementary school. This is a time when even the brightest kids seem to be clueless. It's a time for them to learn, and one of those things they are learning is responsibility. Yes, they need consequences, but they also need some tolerance."
11/10/2009:
"Our boys attend Catholic schools & neither have zero tolerence policies . Each situation is addressed on a case by case basis . In the twenty years of their on going education ( we have four kids ) there has never been a serious - life threatening incident in their schools . Addressing security - years before Columbine these schools have had very restricted access,CCD on DVR 24/7 & plain clothes off duty police officers at each school 7am to 4pm"
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