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Zero Tolerance Is Not the Answer

In an effort to deal with the tsunami of the Sandy Hook tragedy, school districts across the country appear to be embracing what is now commonly referred to as a “zero tolerance” policy. As the term implies, such a policy applies punishments for even minor infractions or deviations with little or no regard to any mitigating circumstances, such as the age of the child, the actual threat of harm, or the context of the behavior.

On February 25, 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement online, which will be included in the March issue of PEDIATRICS, its official publication, denouncing the use of zero tolerance for the developing child.

Recently we have seen the effects of these policies, which have resulted in children as young as 5 years old being suspended from school making “terrorist threats” with a Hello Kitty bubble gun at a bus stop and eating a pop tart into the shape of a gun. Numerous other elementary school age children are being removed from classrooms and brought before tribunals of principals, counselors, preventive specialists and others for behavior that a short while ago would have been attributed to active imaginations and immaturity.

Zero tolerance is not only an oxymoron, it is a wolf in sheeps’ clothing. Zero tolerance gives us the illusion we are creating a more secure school environment for our children. In effect, it is luring us down a path that will ultimately leave our children more vulnerable to the very things we are banking on education to prevent.

Zero tolerance policies have led to suspension and expulsion rates skyrocketing in this country. In turn, school suspension is the leading cause of high schoolers failing to graduate.¹   It outranks any other factor including socioeconomic status, living with one biological parent, and adolescent sex before age 15.²   Once on this road, a child who fails to graduate from high school is 3.5 times more likely to be arrested as an adult. Concomitantly, 82% of adult prisoners are high school drop-outs.³

We must ask ourselves whether the war we are fighting justifies this type of widespread, life changing collateral damage. According to preeminent authorities such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Bar Association (ABA), the answer is a resounding “no”. The recent AAP policy statement concludes that “out of school suspension and expulsion are counterproductive to the intended goals, rarely if ever are necessary, and not be considered as appropriate discipline in any but the most extreme and dangerous circumstances, as determined on an individual basis.” PEDIATRICS, Volume 131, Number 3, March 2013, page 1005.

A similar statement was issued in December of 2012 by the ABA to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary for the record of the hearing on ENDING THE SCHOOL-TO-PRISON-PIPELINE. While acknowledging that schools must address bona fide disciplinary problems, the ABA stated “that a policy focusing on individualized responses to students will be more beneficial than burdensome to school administrators.”

Zero tolerance is the antithesis of balancing interests and equity, principles that countries like the United States embrace as an integral part of our culture. True tolerance is what separates this country from others we view as draconian. If we can’t see this when our children’s futures are at stake, we are truly blind.

¹ Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Abandoned in the Back Row: New Lessons in Education and Delinquency Prevention (2001).
² Suhyun Suh, Jingoyo Suh & Irene Houston, “Predictors of Categorical At-Risk High School Dropouts”, 85 Journal of Counseling and Development 196,196-203 (Spring 2007).
³ Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Abandoned in the Back Row: New Lessons in Education and Delinquency Prevention (2001). 

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