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Published: Friday, 3/30/2001

Zero tolerance, zero sense

Ending zero-tolerance policies altogether is as ill-advised as applying them to every offense -- small, innocent, or silly -- that a student might commit.

The American Bar Association has called for schools to end the policies. “Zero tolerance has become a one-size-fits-all solution to problems that schools confront,” the bar association correctly stated in a report. Consequently, the bar association says, the policies have “redefined students as criminals, with unfortunate consequences.”

The policies arose out of schools' need to severely penalize students who take weapons and illegal drugs into the nation's schools. The policies mandate that schools expel students or refer them to alternative learning centers or criminal court, without asking questions. The quick action also delivers a clear message to any student contemplating behavior that might risk the lives of teachers and students.

That's fine. But it is excessively punitive to apply the policies to students who do not deserve expulsion or other heavy-handed discipline. A Texas middle school student who steals cookies doesn't need a week at an alternative school. Neither does an Arkansas 8-year-old who points a chicken strip at a teacher and says “Pow, pow, pow.”

In the rush to deal severely with the problem of drugs, weapons, and school violence, administrators often have set aside common sense and applied zero-tolerance across the board.

Supporters of such policies say they make schools safer, and that opponents don't work in schools and therefore have no idea how they have improved as a result of zero tolerance.

The bar association focuses much needed attention on the issue, and the need to return a little common sense discipline that fits the offense. Firm, fair, and rational discipline makes sense. It lets schools deal reasonably with youngsters who steal cookies and with second- and third-graders who mimic what they see on TV and in the movies and let their imaginations get the better of them.

And nothing in this more moderate approach precludes swift and firm punishment for legitimate threats.

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