On Zero Tolerance
During an October 22, 1994, ceremony celebrating the authorization of the Gun Free Schools Act, president Clinton stated, “Zero tolerance is a common-sense policy. Why does anybody need a gun in school?” (Cooper, 1994, p. 30). A year later, Clinton again used the same phrase that four years later would become the source of a volatile controversy: “I'm very pleased to announce that our message of zero tolerance has been made a reality around the country” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, 1996, p. 1686). In 2001, three books examined the topic of zero tolerance, but all reached conclusions far different from Clinton’s glowing assessment.
The books reviewed herein consider zero tolerance from multiple perspectives, including the legal framework, social and political motivations, the policy’s implementation, and results and implications of zero tolerance. The stories, analyses, literature reviews, and philosophical arguments contained within these books build a case against zero tolerance and argue for a moratorium on its use. While some present compelling evidence and reasoned arguments for looking critically at the use of zero tolerance, others simply offer ideologically or politically laden criticisms, mildly interesting stories, or impassioned but intellectually weak calls for action.
The term "zero tolerance" refers to policies that prescribe severe punishment for certain offences, no matter how minor, in an effort to treat all wrongdoers equally and to send a message of intolerance for rule breaking. The phrase first enjoyed widespread national attention during the Reagan administration, which used it to refer to the Custom Agency’s stance toward illegal drugs (Henault, 2001).
The Customs Agency halted its zero tolerance policy in 1990; however, just as those zero tolerance policies waned, schools phased them in, primarily targeted toward weapons-related violence. In 1994, the aforementioned Gun Free Schools Act created a national mandate for these policies (Henault, 2001; Zirkel, 1999). Their central feature is the automatic suspension and expulsion of any student who carries a dangerous or deadly weapon to school, which was originally defined as a firearm but expanded in most cases to include knives, explosives, etc.
Shortly after national adoption of weapons-related zero tolerance, school districts began extending the policy’s purview to other undesirable behavior, such as drugs, violence, threats, classroom disruptions, hate speech, and fighting (Advancement Project & Civil Rights Project, 2000). Most policies, including the Gun Free Schools Act, granted school leaders discretion in applying suspensions and expulsions, but few appeared willing to use it, preferring to maintain a “tough” stance and “send a message” to would-be violators (McAndrews, 2002).
By the mid-to-late-1990s, incidents began to surface about over-zealous applications of zero tolerance, such as a Colorado fifth-grade honor roll student’s expulsion for accidentally bringing a paring knife to school (Romano, 1998). Moreover, newspaper stories reported on “skyrocketing” expulsion numbers due to zero tolerance (Cummins, 1998, p. 27A), and researchers began questioning the policy’s implementation and results, particularly related to minority students (Skiba & Peterson, 1999).
These issues, and a few others, came to a head in October 1999, when the Decatur, IL school board expelled six African American high school students who participated in a fistfight at a football game. With charges of racism in the air, the incident, and the issue of zero tolerance, grew into a national story when Rev. Jesse Jackson entered the fray on the students’ behalf.
This episode galvanized zero tolerance opponents. Soon after Decatur, The Advancement Project and the Civil Rights Project at Harvard hosted a national summit on zero tolerance, eventually releasing a widely cited report (Advancement Project & Civil Rights Project, 2000), parts of which reappeared in the Ayers, Dohrn, and Ayers book reviewed here. The United States Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on zero tolerance, at which Skiba and Noam met and from which they eventually conceived their book in this review. Finally, all three books under review cite the Decatur story, and the Ayers, Dohrn, and Ayers book features a chapter length discussion of the events.
Although all three books share some common messages and one over-arching theme, they approach the topic from diverse perspectives, use different methods, and attempt to appeal to distinct audiences. As such, style, tone, and organization differ markedly. And while each book draws a series of recommendations, those, too, vary.
On the continuum from scholarly to popular, Skiba and Noam’s edited volume aims toward the scholarly. In building a case against zero tolerance, the approach is more akin to rational decision-making. Descriptive statistics are utilized throughout; relevant empirical findings are discussed; appropriately placed anecdotes illustrate main findings; and all of it is well documented. The final three chapters consider alternative approaches to school safety by discussing programs in detail.
Ayers, Dohrn, and Ayers’s edited work leans more toward the popular. In fact, the editors call it a “handbook for citizens,” direct readers to a website, and frequently spur readers to activism. As such, the book begins with a Foreword by prominent activist and zero tolerance opponent Jesse Jackson. After the Foreword and Introduction, the text begins with a series of “narratives” in which authors share the stories of those involved with zero tolerance. The next six chapters discuss the social context around zero tolerance, followed by three chapters of research findings, three chapters of recommendations, and a final chapter of reflections.
Casella’sbook points at the middle of the continuum—the informed or educated but not scholarly reader. His narrative approach weaves in his own ethnographic findings from two schools and a prison with tidbits from relevant literature and his own conclusions. Although not as “structured” as Skiba and Noam, Casella’s style and organization befits his intended audience, and he also thoroughly documents his sources.
The meta-theme across all these books is that from conception to implementation to evaluation, zero tolerance is bad. In fact, Michelle Fine and Kersha Smith (in Ayers, Dohrn, & Ayers) warn, “Our youth are under attack” (p. 263). Each book follows a similar pattern of building a case against zero tolerance and suggesting alternatives for addressing violence, drugs, weapons, and various other blights on schools.
The common message receiving the most attention is race. As Ayers et al. write, “After all, when everyone keeps insisting ‘this is not about race,’ race is the thing it is most assuredly about” (p. xv). Later in the book they assert zero tolerance is a tool to restrict education to the “deserving” and call it “today’s fundamental civil rights issue” (p. 87).
Other discussions address the disproportionate rates at which minority students are suspended and expelled under zero tolerance, particularly after controlling for representation within the school population. For example, Browne, Losen, and Wald (in Skiba & Noam) write, “In 1998-99, African American students accounted for 33 percent of all those suspended and 31 percent of all those expelled, yet made up only 17% of all students” (p. 74).
Skiba (in Ayers et al.) reports similar findings but also asks potentially sensitive yet nonetheless important questions, such as: “Are black students more likely to misbehave?” (p. 181); and “Does minority disproportionality represent racial discrimination?” (p. 177). By asking such questions, Skiba demonstrates critical thinking that separates good research from assumption-laden activism. This is not to say that Skiba shies away from activism—simply read his unequivocal statements about zero tolerance in Phi Delta Kappan (1999) and the New York Times (2000). However, he at least appears willing to test the glaring assumption evident in other authors in these works, specifically: Because school officials are racists, they suspend or expel minority students at greater rates.
The second most common message is that zero tolerance simply does not work. For example, Noguera (in Ayers et al.) writes, “…there is little if any evidence that the kinds of punishments most frequently utilized by schools have the effect of deterring or modifying behavior…” (p. 211). Two groups of authors, Skiba and Knesting, and Morrison, Anthony, Storino, Cheng, Furlong, and Morrison (in Skiba & Noam), likewise conclude that disorder and violence in schools appear largely unaffected, and, in fact, some state and local data suggest zero tolerance has caused a dramatic increase in the use of suspensions and expulsions in some school districts. Casella criticizes zero tolerance and related measures, such as security technology, as ineffective and short-sighted.
Yet, data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and other research appears to indicate otherwise. Reports on the Safe and Gun Free Schools Act indicate a nation-wide decreasing trend in weapon-related expulsions (Gray & Sinclair, 2000; 2002; 2003; 1999; Sinclair, Hamilton, Gutmann, Daft, & Bolcik, 1998). Additionally, Barton, Coley, and Wenglinsky (1998) found that schools with less strict discipline policies experienced higher levels of serious offences.
The third common message is the irreparable damage done to students who are suspended or expelled under zero tolerance. Morrison et al. (in Skiba & Noam) assert policies that rely solely on suspending and expelling students do not remedy student misbehavior. Instead, they are believed to exacerbate student misconduct, contribute to academic failure and higher drop-out rates, and leave students vulnerable to anti-social, high risk, and delinquent situations. As Casella describes it, “Zero tolerance…assures the creation of criminals” (p. 66).
This occurs because separating students from the educational environment likely removes them from one of the only potentially positive factors in their lives. As Casella and the narratives at the beginning of Ayers et al. describe, students who receive suspension or expulsion most often hail from unstable, violent, and/or low SES environments. Thus, denying an education regularly perpetuates the cycle of violence, poverty, or at-risk behavior.
This closely relates to the fourth common message and arguably one of the most important: the causes of behaviors that trigger zero tolerance. All too often, leaders pursue policies without systemically considering variables that contribute to the issue in question. The result frequently is failure in solving the root problem and creation of new problems (Gillon, 2000; Tenner, 1996).
Casellabelieves finding the “singular cause of violence is a farce” (p. 62) and instead works from the thesis “that complex and intricate relationships among parts of an organism cannot be explored out of the context of their whole” (p. 11). Likewise, Noguera (in Ayers et al.) asserts: “…responses to violence that do not take into account the ways in which it is rationalized, legitimated, and sanctioned within schools, communities, and society are unlikely to succeed in reducing or eliminating it” (p. 216).
In seeking more comprehensive answers, the six chapters in Ayers et al. on “social contexts,” identify a list of causes, including poverty, racism, inadequate education, unequal opportunities, access to guns, childhood abuse and neglect, and familial mental health problems. Casella’s list shares some common causes, such as poverty, and he adds a few that are thoughtful (nihilism, despair, alienation), typical (media violence, modeling by adults), and even unconventional (JROTC military training).
Of course, creating such lists is nothing profound, and none of the authors systematicly attempt to examine the interactions of any of these variables. Casella comes closest, by drawing some qualitative conclusions, but it is hardly the stuff upon which to write policy, even though plenty of policy has been based on less.
What Noguera and Casella imply, but never explicitly state, is the rather simple (read cliché-ish) but nonetheless true reality: There is no silver bullet. No amount of regression, HLM, structural equation modleing, or various other analyses will neatly tie all of the social and political variables into a bow. However, acknowledging the complex genesis of violence greatly surpasses the myopic view prevalent in America’s legislative chambers, media outlets, and living rooms.
Finally, allowing for the Hydra-like roots to weapons, violence, and other undesirable behavior in schools, all three books consider diverse alternatives to zero tolerance. Some advocate specific programs. Gagne and Lenoe (in Skiba & Noam) discuss the “Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP),” “Project ACHIEVE,” “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS),” “Positive Adolescent Choices Training (PACT),” “First Step to Success,” and the “Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA).” As the director, coordinator, and associate program director respectively, Noam, Warner, and Van Dyken (in Skiba & Noam) outline their RALLY program for violence prevention.
Others discuss less programmatic approaches to school violence. Sandler (in Ayers et al.) and Osher, Sandler, and Nelson (in Skiba & Noam) advocate structural, environmental, social, and procedural changes, such as instilling caring, peaceful communities, grounding the school in the students’ culture (such as Afro-centrism), or promoting critical thinking about behavior. Additionally, Noguera (in Ayers et al.) advocates the creation of greater social capital to increase school safety.
Casellais less specific. He asserts: “Schools have to be worth a student’s time” (p. 182), and calls for interventions that addresses “economic disparities, prejudice, inequitable school structures and organizational features [like tracking], unjust hierarchies, and the culture we create at large” (p. 183).
The common threads running through all approaches are disagreement with a “one-size-fits-all” policy and the necessity of prevention over reaction. Any logical reader could hardly disagree, but patently dismissing zero tolerance, which several authors advocate, would deny school officials a useful tool in school safety.
Namely, zero tolerance serves an operational purpose by temporarily separating a dangerous or potentially dangerous student from the rest of the school population (Ewing, 2000). When a student carries a truly dangerous weapon to school, removal of the offender from the school setting is necessary for the physical protection of other students. School leaders should assess the student’s needs and disposition, the reasons for the infraction, and requisite sanctions, if any are required, but only after concern for the safety of all students and staff is addressed. Thus, those who seek the policy's elimination would do no favors to schools and those who populate them.
For academicians, particularly of the quantitative bent, it is likely that none of these books will prove satisfying. To begin, for all their criticisms about the “lack of data” or “lack of evidence” surrounding zero tolerance, all three books largely suffer from the same shortcoming. Despite Jesse Jackson’s claim (in Ayers et al.) that “[t]he authors unequivocally demonstrate that ‘get tough’ policies do not work” (p. ix), no one presents compelling evidence to that affect.
Moreover, the “evidence” presented on the deleterious effects of zero tolerance is overwhelmingly anecdotal. No quantitative data beyond descriptive or secondary, and precious little good qualitative data, is presented to convince a critical reader that America is “eating her young,” “attacking our youth,” or perpetrating any other equally widespread scandalous injustice.
The strongest argument along these lines remains the disproportionate discipline of minority students, a phenomenon present prior to the advent of zero tolerance, but only Skiba’s chapter in Ayers et al. proves compelling. Further research is required before we should accept Sandler’s claim (in Ayers et al.) of “institutional racism” (p. 222). Indeed, Skiba (in Ayers et al.) concludes, “Taking such data seriously does not demand that we vilify teachers as conscious racists for the overreferral of black students” (p. 184).
Of course, two of the books (Ayers et al. and Casella) are not necessarily written for academic readers, and their style, in addition to content, clearly indicates that. For example, bold, evaluative, and/or unsupported statements are evident throughout, including:
It is likely that the zero tolerance summit by the Advancement Project and the Civil Rights Project, the report released after the conference, and these three books were designed, in part, to foment public sentiment against zero tolerance. Indeed, after describing zero tolerance as “the triumph of a narrow, authoritarian view of children and youth,” Ayers et al. charge, “We can do better. We can resist” (p. 164).
Of course, widespread resistance never materialized. Instead, zero tolerance policies enjoyed unprecedented public support throughout the 1990s and into the new century. In 1997, 93% of a Gallup sample supported weapons-related zero tolerance policies for schools (Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa, 1997). Even during the Decatur, IL imbroglio, public support for zero tolerance never dropped below 50% (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics, 1999), and in 2001 an Associated Press (2001) poll found the number was still as high as 83%.
Such strong support by no means demonstrates the policy’s fecundity or equity. Indeed, as Schiraldi and Ziedenberg (in Ayers et al.) opine, it could more reflect the media’s skewed coverage of idiosyncratic events of school violence. However, until public sentiment changes or until solid research clearly demonstrates either the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance and/or its unjust, ruinous consequences, support will likely remain strong. These books ask some important questions and introduce notable issues surrounding zero tolerance, but none prove particularly compelling either as research or as activism.
Advancement Project, & Civil Rights Project. (2000). Opportunities suspended: The devastating consequences of zero tolerance and school discipline. Retrieved December 19, 2003, from www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/discipline/call_opport.ph p
Associated Press. (2001). Poll, July 27-July 31. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from www.ropercenter.uconn.edu
Barton, P., Coley, R., & Wenglinsky, H. (1998). Order in the classroom: Violence, discipline, and student achievement. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
Congressional Record. (1994). Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Washington, DC: Office of the Federal Register.
Cooper, K. J. (1994, October 23). Clinton toughens ban on guns at schools. Chicago Sun-Times, p. 30.
Cummins, C. (1998, June 14). Zero-tolerance actions may still spur outrage. Rocky Mountain News, p. 27A.
Ewing, C. P. (2000). Sensible zero tolerance protects kids. Retrieved December 19, 2003, from http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/2000- jf/zero.shtml
Fox News/Opinion Dynamics. (1999). Poll, November 17-November 18. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from www.ropercenter.uconn.edu
Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa. (1997). Poll of public attitudes toward the public schools. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from www.ropercenter.uconn.edu
Gillon, S. M. (2000). That's not we meant to do. New York: Norton.
Gray, K., & Sinclair, B. (2000). Report on state implementation of the Gun-Free Schools Act-school year 1998-99. Rockville, MD: Westat.
Gray, K., & Sinclair, B. (2002). Report on state/territory implementation of the Gun-Free Schools Act-school year 1999-2000. Rockville, MD: Westat.
Gray, K., & Sinclair, B. (2003). Report on the implementation of the Gun-Free Schools Act in the states and outlying areas-school year 2000-2001. Rockville, MD: Westat.
Henault, C. (2001). Zero tolerance in schools. Journal of Law and Education, 30(3), 547-553.
Kohl, H. (1995, May 9). Guns in schools: Congress can't just turn its back. Washington Post, p. 19.
McAndrews, T. (2002). Zero tolerance policies (pp. 5). Eugene, OR: ERIC.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. (1996). Bill Clinton. Washington, DC: Office of the Federal Register.
Romano, M. (1998, May 9). State no. 1 in expulsions. Rocky Mountain News, p. 5A.
Sinclair, B. (1999). Report on state implementation of the Gun-Free Schools Act-school year 1997-98. Rockville, MD: Westat.
Sinclair, B., Hamilton, J., Gutmann, B., Daft, J., & Bolcik, D. (1998). Report on state implementation of the Gun-Free Schools Act-school year 1996-97. Rockville, MD: Westat.
Skiba, R. (2000, January 14). No to zero tolerance. New York Times, p. 27.
Skiba, R. J., & Peterson, R. (1999, January). The dark side of zero tolerance. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 372.
Tenner, E. (1996). Why things bite back. New York: Knopf.
Zirkel, P. A. (1999). Zero tolerance expulsions. NASSP Bulletin, 83(605), 101-105.
About the Reviewer
Dick Carpenter is an Assistant Professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. His diverse background includes experience as a public school teacher, administrator, a public policy analyst for a national non-profit organization. His research focuses on educational policy, leadership, communications, school reform, and the U.S. Presidency.