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Zero Tolerance Rules Force Schools into Straitjacket


Some school officials imagined that by-the-book penalties, by eliminating discretion, would reduce parental protests and litigation.

John Leo

When new rules seem arbitrary or harsh, news reports always home in on the horrible examples. This is what happened to the politically correct race-and-gender rules on campus. Few people were talking about the alleged high moral purpose of the codes. Most were talking about the idiocies involved: the University of Pennsylvania student threatened with suspension for shouting water buffalo at middle-of-the-night revelers, the Sarah Lawrence student punished for inappropriate laughter, the Penn State teacher who had a Goya painting removed from a classroom wall because it had sexually harassed her once too often.

What happened to the PC codes is now happening to zero-tolerance rules in public schools. In the wake of Jesse Jacksons crusade in Decatur, Ill., we are hearing about zero tolerance that seems to make zero sense: the 12-year-old Virginia boy expelled for waving a stapler around on a school bus, the Florida girl suspended for bringing a nail clipper to class, the two-day suspension of a 9-year-old Ohio boy who wrote You will die with honor when a teacher asked him to compose a fortune cookie message. Zero tolerance has been enforced against a girl for carrying a bottle of Advil, a boy for using Scope after lunch, and a kindergartner who brought a beeper on a school field trip.

Its hard to imagine that the current versions of zero tolerance can survive this kind of publicity, not to mention the legal challenges they invite. The Rutherford Institute is tracking and fighting a number of these school punishments, including the T.J. West case in Derby, Kan., the first zero-tolerance case to reach federal court. West, 13, drew a picture of a Confederate flag on a scrap of paper. The school had listed the flag as a hate symbol, so West was suspended for racial harassment and intimidation. He lost at trial and an appeal is now before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Some school officials imagined that by-the-book penalties, by eliminating discretion, would reduce parental protests and litigation. But one-size-fits-all punishment merely removes one form of arbitrariness (shall we punish him or let him off with a warning?) and replaces it with another (shall we consider zinc cough drops a drug offense?). So expect no let-up in litigating.

Inevitably children come to see this as a crazy adult game played at the expense of students. Authority has been shaped into what for kids are alien, legalistic forms, says author Kay Hymowitz. Officials insist that the rules are crucial, but children can see that schools often back down the minute that Daddy shows up with a lawyer. Its hard for students to respect authority when all the authorities are busy suing one another, ducking suits, or cracking down on Advil violations.

Children also cant understand why schools lump minor events with major offenses. At Curie High School in Chicago, two girls were written up for a lunchtime quarrel over a magazine. No punches were thrown. No hair was pulled. But the argument was listed as an official infraction. Schools are right to suspect that some minor skirmishes and insults can be indicators of deeper trouble. But the goal in the magazine quarrel should have been to talk things through to a peaceful handshake, not to mark it down in a permanent school record.

William Damon, a professor of education at Stanford who has closely studied zero-tolerance policies, says the Confederate flag case in Kansas might have been settled on the spot: ask the student if he meant the drawing as a racial barb. If he says yes, suspend him immediately. If he says no, explain why many people are offended by the flag and give him a chance to write a note to classmates apologizing or explaining that he meant no offense.

The obvious way to reform zero-tolerance policies is to narrow the list of offenses that draw detentions, suspensions and expulsions. Pushing and shoving arent violence. Idly doodling a Confederate flag isnt racial intimidation. This expansion of language and allegedly grave offenses is what discredited the campus codes. Zero-tolerance policies should cover clear and serious offenses involving violence, threats and harassment, bomb scares, drugs and alcohol, and cheating. In other matters, teachers and principals should be left to exercise discretion and common sense.

Damon wants schools to talk to students about the moral basis of rules, how they make sense in terms of protecting student freedom to learn and enjoy school. Adolescents, he says, want predictability, order, and authority figures who believe what they say.

The trivialization of zero-tolerance policies is one of those social disasters jointly sponsored by the right and the left. Many on the right want a return to the no-nonsense principal-knows-best ethic of the old days. The left, still afflicted by the 60s mentality of disdain for standards and rules, has developed a surprising taste for draconian punishment as a way of coping with the mess its no-rules ethic helped to create (if you doubt this, look at the PC codes and sexual harassment law). Fear of litigation and fear of making judgments about decent behavior are both involved in the rise of the zero-tolerance mind-set. Its far easier to hide behind bureaucratic procedures and just look up the correct punishment in a manual. But this is no way to run a school.



Leo, John. Zero Tolerance Rules Force Schools into Straitjacket. U.S. News and World Report (Dec. 5, 1999).

Reprinted by permission of John Leo and US News and World Report.

The Author

John Leo is a contributing editor for U.S.News & World Report, and his column on the state of our culture appears weekly in 140 newspapers across the country. Leo has covered the social sciences and intellectual trends for Time magazine and the New York Times. He is also the author of two books: Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police and a book of humor, How the Russians Invented Baseball and Other Essays of Enlightenment. He lives with his wife and daughter in Manhattan.

Copyright © 1999 US News&World Report
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