Zero Tolerance in School Leads to Intolerance

I have zero tolerance for zero-tolerance application in education. This nearly ubiquitous public policy wears the mask of fairness, equality and due process while harboring a face of bureaucratic rigidity, intolerance and shortsightedness, particularly when it comes to schools. Unfortunately for those caught in its web, zero-tolerance implementation requires zero thought, zero judgment and zero humanity.

What began as a grand national policy to improve school safety and educational environments through equal treatment has morphed into a form of overactive frontier justice. The original intent was for all students -- regardless of race, athletic ability or parental influence -- to follow the rules and be treated fairly and sanely. However, what is touted today as the lingua franca for all public school offenses is reactionary sameness and administrative inflexibility.

Parents and communities should have zero tolerance for anything that paints all discipline issues with an identical brush. There should be individual treatment for individual school transgressions. Yes, some students should be expelled for their unacceptable behavior, but as educators Russell Skiba and Gil Noam write, “regardless of their popularity or expediency, single-issue rhetorical solutions like zero tolerance will never be able to capture or respond to the complex needs of students in our school environments.”

Consequently, a series of Socratic questions are illustrative:


* If one size does not fit all when it comes to shoes, how can one size fit all when it comes to students?

* Has a zero-tolerance policy at my school made it safer or merely contributed to or created additional delinquents and dropouts?

* What groups of students are most affected by this draconian policy?

* Is zero tolerance targeting a disproportionate number of unwanted or undesirable at-risk students?


* Does the juxtaposition of saber-rattling, gun-toting, violent images of buccaneers, warriors or conquistadors designed to promote school spirit seem incongruous to a vigorously enforced zero-tolerance policy?

* What conflicting messages are being received by students, parents and staff when these powerful school symbols contrast and contradict?

* Is my community able and ready to discuss ending mascot hypocrisy?

These inquiries require more comprehensive, complicated and inclusive answers than “Don’t worry, we’re just enforcing the zero-tolerance policy.”


Thomas Sergiovanni answers in his 1996 text, “Leadership for the Schoolhouse,” with the so-called “railroad theory of school management.” He notes that increasing the assembly-line mentality of schools to pay homage to the gods of accountability has a profound impact.

Sergiovanni states that “scripting the work scripts the worker as well. As schooling becomes more routinized and impersonal, teaching and learning become more ‘teacher-proof’ and ‘learner-proof.’ ”

He further writes that “principals, teachers and students are rewarded for following rules rather than solving problems, for following procedures rather than making good decisions, for doing things right rather than doing right things. Though no one intends that bureaucratic teaching and learning be the result of the railroad theory, it soon comes to dominate the lives of principals and teachers, teachers and students, and schools and parents.”

It’s time to stop this train to perdition and get off. Otherwise, we arrive too soon at the depot of intolerance.



Donald E. Baumeister is an adjunct faculty member at Chapman University.