Living with Zero Tolerance

By Pipho, Chris | Phi Delta Kappan, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Living with Zero Tolerance


Pipho, Chris, Phi Delta Kappan


Student discipline and control entered a new era in 1994 when the federal government passed P.L. 103382, tagged the Gun-Free Schools Act. Prior to this time state legislation was not nearly so specific with regard to student discipline and control and generally decreed it to be a local issue. The most common law on the books was a general requirement that local boards have in place a policy on discipline, suspensions, and expulsions. The federal legislation made the eligibility for ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) funds contingent on a state's enacting a "zero tolerance" law with the goal of producing "gun-free" schools. While a few states had zero tolerance laws before the federal legislation was enacted, most states used the event to strengthen and add new state laws.

State Legislation

Beginning in 1994 and carrying on into 1995, all 50 states came into compliance with the federal mandate. The guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education were summarized by the National School Boards Association in the following manner:

* Private schools are not subject to the act.

* In order to be eligible for ESEA funds, local school districts must have an expulsion policy consistent with the required state law.

* The one-year expulsion requirement does not allow school districts to waive the due process rights of students.

* State law must allow the chief administrative officer of each local school district to modify the one-year expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis.

* In its application to the state for ESEA funds, each local school district must include in its policy a requirement that students expelled for weapons violations be referred to the criminal justice or the juvenile justice system.

* The requirement for the case-by-case exception may not be used to avoid overall compliance with the one-year expulsion requirement.

* The term "weapon" in the federal law does not include knives or common fireworks, though a state law implementing the federal act may use a broader definition of weapon that does include knives. The federal definition of weapon does include guns, bombs, grenades, rockets, and missiles.

While the state legislation generally set out to meet the intent of the federal guidelines, subsequent legislation has begun to broaden the definition of a weapon and to add additional implementation procedures to give greater discretion to local school administrators. At stake here was the perceived inability of local officials to react to situations in which judgment could alter an automatic maximum penalty.

The media, of course, have been quick to pick up on stories in which the penalty appeared more serious than the infraction. In Colorado, two incidents brought this to public attention. One involved an elementary student who brought a paring knife to school in a lunch box to be used to cut an apple. The case went to the school board for automatic expulsion before it was modified. Another incident involved a kindergarten student who brought a loaded pistol to school. District follow-up revealed that the parents did not possess a weapon and that a relative/house guest brought it into the home without their knowledge. In both cases, the media ran numerous stories on each incident.

State legislation now appears to be going in two directions. Some states are trying to clarify the "accidental" situations, while others seem bent on extending the coverage of the law to include drugs, alcohol, and other items. The following are a few examples of state legislation that has been enacted or proposed.

* Arizona, enacted 1995. A school district or charter school shall expel from school for a period of not less than one year a student who is determined to have brought a firearm to a school or its jurisdiction, except that the school district or charter school may modify this expulsion requirement for a student on a case-by-case basis. …

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