The phrase zero-tolerance first came to national prominence after the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999. However, zero-tolerance policies for schoolchildren have existed since the 1980s. These policies set specific, serious consequences for students in situations where rule-breaking and other misconduct has occurred. Zero tolerance is controversial for a number of reasons. These policies often treat insubordination, threats, and violence as the same.
Advocates for zero-tolerance believe that schools grew too complacent before these policies were in place. In the 1990s, violence in schools seemed to be growing. In 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act was passed by the federal government. Metal detectors were popping up in some schools, especially urban ones. Parents and students wanted assurances that schools would be a safe environment where children could focus on learning. This was the era where zero-tolerance really started to gain ground.
Critics of zero-tolerance approaches in education say that it’s a one strike and you’re out system. Zero-tolerance policies hand down one-size-fits-all suspensions and expulsions, regardless of the circumstances that led to misconduct. So, for example, if a bullied student is defending themselves after being attacked, that student can still be subject to discipline under zero-tolerance rules.
During the Obama Administration, school discipline came under scrutiny. It was believed that schools were being too hard on children of color, who were disproportionately affected by zero-tolerance rules. The phrase “school to prison pipeline” gained currency. However, critics note that the well-intentioned policies of the Obama Administration didn’t necessarily work. The Parkland shooting involved a school that was lauded for reducing suspensions and expulsions. However, the shooter had serious behavioral problems that went unaddressed. Under zero-tolerance, he would have been flagged and dealt with much earlier.
Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education, has rolled back many of the Obama Administration’s policies. In the wake of tragedies like Parkland, zero-tolerance is in vogue once again. There are signs that zero-tolerance policies are overzealous. For example, nail clippers and even hot peppers have been considered weapons in some schools. However, for now, zero-tolerance seems to be the only thing that works. It hands down one-size-fits-all punishments, but that also means that there’s no favoritism in any situation. These policies are a blunt, but in many ways effective, tool.