Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Zero Tolerance and the Paradox of Fairness: Viewpoints from the Classroom

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Zero Tolerance and the Paradox of Fairness: Viewpoints from the Classroom

Article excerpt


This exploratory research examines preservice and inservice teachers' perceptions of zero tolerance and this policy's relationship to notions of fairness. Employing both legal and qualitative methodologies, focus groups were convened and facilitated by the authors. An analysis of the transcripts from these two focus groups found that factors such as context, intent, history, and teacher judgment were absent from zero tolerance policies. From these teachers' perspective it is imperative that these factors be considered.

Who can argue with the proposition that we will not tolerate drugs or weapons in our schools? Who does not want our schools to be safe places, where learning can take place without the fear that violence outside the schoolhouse gate will intrude inside our classrooms or spill onto our playgrounds? Unfortunately, there have been many incidences where events such as these have occurred. However, when violence, drugs, and/or weapons do enter into our schools, can we agree on what "actions" should be taken?1

In this article, we explore one such action known as zero tolerance. This policy, in place in a majority of our public schools in the United States, requires an expulsion or suspension for certain misbehaviors.2 To investigate zero tolerance, we examined legal cases and worked with two groups of educators to explore the policy, its implementation, its nuances, and the ways in which it crosses paths with issues of fairness. After all, who also can argue with the notion that when implementing any policy, educators must act fairly?


In this paper we begin with the premise that zero tolerance policies were formulated with the best of intentions. The United States Department of Education defines zero tolerance in a school or school district as a "policy that mandates predetermined and severe consequences or punishment for specific offenses."3 The phrase, predetermined consequences, refers to a required response on the part of school administrators. The phrase, severe consequences, refers to suspension and most often expulsion. The violation of a zero tolerance policy results in the application of these severe consequences on the first instance.

Historically, zero tolerance began as a "Congressional initiative to control drugs, weapons, and violent behavior."4 Zero tolerance can be traced to the federal Gun-Free School Act of 1994, an act legislating states to have in effect a state law requiring schools to expel from school for a period of not less than one year a student who is determined to have brought a weapon to school.5 While the impetus for zero tolerance was weapons possession, zero tolerance policies in most states have expanded to include nonviolent behavior such as drug possession, defiance of authority, habitual profanity, defacing school property, and gang-related behavior on school campuses.6

Those in support of zero tolerance policies seek to send a no-nonsense message relative to drugs and weapons at school. Zero tolerance policies "deal out severe punishment for all offenses, no matter how minor, ostensibly in an effort to treat all offenders equally in the spirit of fairness and intolerance of rule-breaking."7 German and Pauken similarly stated that the advantages to zero tolerance policies include "holding wrongdoers responsible for their own actions and keeping consistent in the application of formula-based discipline codes."8 Echelbarger and associates9 believe that zero tolerance policies may serve to establish a standard of behavior for students, and Ewing writes that,

[b]eyond immediate safety concerns . . . [the] application of zero tolerance appropriately denounces violent student behavior in no uncertain terms and serves as a deterrent to such behavior in the future by sending a clear message that acts which physically harm or endanger others will not be permitted under any circumstances. …

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