Academic journal article Educational Research Quarterly

Reforming the Discipline Management Process in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Zero Tolerance

Academic journal article Educational Research Quarterly

Reforming the Discipline Management Process in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Zero Tolerance

Article excerpt


There is a need for educational reform of zero tolerance policies in school disciplinary management procedures. Zero tolerance policies are rigid mandates of predetermined consequences for specific student misconduct. Common sense and fairness are not necessarily served by the application of inflexible disciplinary rules that do not address the circumstances surrounding particular situations. A disciplinary decision can have long-term implications for a student's future career, as well as to his or her perception of the educational system. This paper provides three case studies where zero tolerance was applied; presents research that supports systematic reform of zero tolerance policies, as a means of reforming current discipline management practices in schools; and describes an alternative approach to the application of zero tolerance disciplinary measures.

Case Studies on Zero Tolerance


A 16-year old high school honor student was expelled for having a 10-inch bread knife in the back of his truck. The knife was accidentally left in the truck when the personal belongings of the student's grandmother were being moved. Expulsion of the teenager was mandated by a zero-tolerance policy regarding weapons (Associated Press, March 2002).

Case Two

A 16-year old high school student, who was a knife collector, faced mandatory expulsion for buying a 15-inch knife at school from a teacher in a small rural school. The student had a note from his mother approving the purchase of the knife. No leeway was allowed in administering the mandated discipline even though there was alleged contributing misconduct by the teacher, who resigned, and the principal, who was placed on administrative leave with pay (Marshall, October 2002).

Case Three

A 13-year old eighth-grade honor student was removed as student council president, ousted from the honor society, and required to attend a disciplinary class for seven days because she brought a pencil sharpener to school. The girl's mother bought the pencil sharpener in South Korea for her daughter. The sharpener had a two-inch blade folded into a handle, the kind that is used by students in South Korea (and had been used by the mother as a student). School authorities applied zero tolerance discipline in the case. The student's parents filed a suit in federal court, contending that due process was not provided (Rice, October 2003).


Discipline in education can serve multiple purposes, including the development of student character, preservation of school decorum, and maintenance of campus safety (Duke, 2002). While laws and regulations exist to address school discipline, there is a trend to impose zero tolerance disciplinary policies, thereby impeding the application of administrator discretion to student infractions. Consequently, zero tolerance policies can seriously restrict the appropriateness of the punishment to the offense (Black, 2004).

As illustrated by the three case studies, the apparent injustice caused by the application of zero tolerance policies calls for reforms in how schools approach disciplinary management. The zero tolerance decision-making model can create counterproductive results, seriously hindering the educational purposes of discipline ia schools (Cariledge, Tillnan, £ Johnson, 2001; LPR Publications, 2004), This is especially important considering that students not viewed as dangerous to the school environment commit many of the offenses (Morrison & D'lncau, 1997). The literature suggests that school administrators should be allowed more flexibility in arriving at discipline management decisions (Chalk Talk, 2001); unless, of course, the incidents are so serious and harmful that no discretion should be allowed.

Factors from research and practice (Deer Park ISD, 2002-2003; Duke, 2002; McCarthy, Cambron-McCabe, & Thomas, 1998; Morrison & D'Incau, 1997) have been identified that school administrators could use in an alternative approach to arrive at disciplinary decisions. …

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