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Zero Tolerance Policies Flunk

Posted by Scott Barron on Mar 3, 2014 1:08:44 PM
Scott Barron

Seeing the Toll, Schools Revise Zero ToleranceZero Tolerance

This recent article in the New York Times featured the tough facts about the policies that school administrators and boards have used for the last few decades under the guise of improving safety and security. Trouble is, zero tolerance policies have not accomplished the goal. Instead, they have produced greater "arrest records, low academic achievement and high dropout rates."


Why are U.S. cities and school districts revaluating this approach? Because they are the result of zero leadership!

What's the motivation behind such school rules?

Due Process

Due Process is afforded to public school families because of government funding. In short, it's a guarantee of fairness. Fairness, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder. In a discipline decision it may include: notice of the rule or policy, the opportunity to be meaningfully heard, substantial evidence to support a decision, etc. School leaders sometimes struggle with how to protect these rights in the disciplinary process as evidenced by the enormous amount of legal precident in school law. Zero tolerance policies just make it easier to avoid these headaches and stay out of court.

Public Opinion

Making discipline decisions can be complex and difficult. In the case this week of a 6-year-old student in Canon City, Colorado, who was disciplined for unwanted physical contact by kissing a girl's hand, the administrators had to consider the pattern of behavior of this young boy, his responsiveness to other forms of discipline, and the impact on the other student. The overwhelming social media outrage based on the early statements by the boy's mom were ignorant of the complete facts and of the school's process for handling such situations. It's amazing how many people are experts at running a school but lack the guts and the experience to actually do the job!

Managing and responding to public opinion can be a full-time job. School leaders don't want to negotiate and defend their decisions in the media. So it's easier to just enforce a black and white policy that is broadly enforced and often "protects" the board from political fall out. "Sorry, there's nothing we can do--we have a zero tolerance policy."

Weak Leadership

In some situations, zero tolerance policies are made out of fear and a lack of trust in leadership that is perceived as weak. Rather than deal with an administrative decision that cannot be reasonably supported, the board may opt to force the leadership to adhere to standardized consequences--perhaps more damaging than standarized testing?

Fortunately this pendulum is headed in the other direction.

Topics: Current Events

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