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.