Those who oppose Zero Tolerance policies suggest that the atmosphere it creates at a school -- one where everyone is a potential violent offender -- may actually breed more discontent, disaffectedness, and desperate acts. Most school shooters, in addition to a long list of troubling behavior, complain of having been bullied in school. Zero Tolerance makes administrators -- the very grown-ups children should be trusting and turning to -- into the biggest bullies of all, able to punish a child on the merest of technicalities without mercy. Mercy, in fact, is expressly forbidden.
It's easy to find stories of Zero Tolerance pushed to ridiculous degrees -- the fifth-grader expelled for having a plastic knife in her lunchbox, the boy who disarmed a suicidal friend and was then expelled for holding the weapon. Administrators may stick to the letter of the law for all sorts of logical reasons, but abdicating their responsibility to deal rationally with their students likely increases the level of fear, mistrust, and secret-keeping in their schools.
More tragic than these silly missteps of justice is the way in which Zero Tolerance policies are used disproportionately against racial minorities and kids with learning, emotional and behavioral problems. Whereas the rigid enforcement of rules against even the most minor offenses represents a refusal by administrators to make their own decisions, selective enforcement against certain portions of the student body may represent exactly the opposite. When a special education student is suspended for repeating a threat made by a regular education student; when behavior plans are disregarded and students punished for the very behaviors the plans were designed to prevent; when factors that led a student to be classified for special education cannot be considered in determining disciplinary measures, it's hard not to feel that Zero Tolerance policies are being used as weapons, not to prevent them.
Children Need Limits
Yet, as Zero Tolerance proponents would point out, it is quite often those very emotionally disturbed, behaviorally challenged students who are the ones who eventually resort to violence. If the school's hands are tied -- if rules can only be enforced selectively, and special education safeguards are used to force administrators to keep students they feel are dangerous in class -- how can violence be prevented? The rules have to be applied to everybody, the honor students and the struggling ones, the football stars and the students with disabilities, the quiet kids and the disruptive ones. Fair is fair.
Or maybe "fair" is not the right word. Even some who favor Zero Tolerance believe that administrators must use discretion or risk creating a hostile environment. Every rule violation needs to be dealt with sternly, but the punishments can do a better job of fitting the crime than they currently do. A plastic knife and a real one shoud not earn the same disciplinary response. Saying you'll bring a gun and doing it should not. Repeating a threat and making a threat should not. These may be judgment calls, but judgment is part of an administrator's job. Refusing to use it out of fear for the tragic consequences of a wrong guess should not be an option.
It's certainly true that children need limits. They need to know what the rules are, how they will be enforced, and that they will be enforced every time. When you start blunting that message with special circumstances and exempting everybody who has a good lawyer or a mouthy mama, you're inviting chaos. Parents of children with special needs know how poorly our kids respond to rigid enforcement of broadly defined rules. But we also know how poorly they respond to inconsistent enforcement or no rules at all. As parents, we work to find a balance between firmness and flexibility, remaining in charge but considering the needs and desires of our charges. Schools seem to have trouble finding that middle ground.
Where It Stands
In an ideal world, all children in every school would feel valued, understood, and heard. They would be excited about learning, and they would work together to protect their school experience. Educators would know every child, be interested in every child, be alert to every change in relationship and mood and intervene to keep things positive and forward-moving. The frustrations and misunderstandings and bullying that leads to violence would never happen because each child would have his or her educational and emotional needs met by interested, attentive adults and motivated, caring classmates.
We do not live in an ideal world.
We live in a world where classrooms are overcrowded, standardized testing forces one-size-fits-all education, schools are underfunded, therapist caseloads overflow, teachers receive inadequate support, children are overbooked, parents are overwhelmed. We live in a world in which meeting the needs of one child often means denying the needs of another. We live in a world in which people expect more and more from schools even as they vote down school budgets. And tragically, we live in a world in which violence occurs in sudden and unpredictable ways.
Given that, we may not be able to ask schools to rescue every dangerous student or meet every emotional need. But we can ask them to educate every child, with whatever supports and assistance and creativity that requires. What's fair for students with special needs is that educational plans are carefully made and carried out in good faith. That's what's fair for every student.
How do you feel about Zero Tolerance? Join the discussion in the Parenting Special Needs forum.