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There are hundreds if not thousands of students in any given school. The sheer size and magnitude of the student population encompassed in these schools leads to complications of school safety. Zero tolerance is a policy which was brought about enforcing school safety more firmly, and aimed to better protect students. However, the way in which these students are protected is highly debatable, making the zero tolerance ideology very controversial. Exactly which approach is most effective in protecting a student, let alone, thousands? Is strictness more effective than leniency? Overly strict policies aim to protect the majority, however, severally punish those who have to deal with the wrath of zero tolerance, those who violate the rules. Overly lenient policies can lead to dreadful events, however, give students a sense of reason, in turn creating an understanding of what they have done wrong. In the long run which method is most effective in protecting students? These type of questions, along with the excess amount of questionable cases, compose a highly controversial topic.
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The well being of a student is the single most important factor for public schools. No parent would ever send their child to school if there was a high probability of violence. For this reason there are people who favor zero tolerance. Domoine D. Rutledge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana, reports that zero tolerance policies have aided in creating a culture inside schools that “certain things will not be tolerated, period.” However, whether or not that policy is effective relies on “how fairly it’s enforced and how consistently it’s enforced.” He continues saying that:
Schools districts have had to really balance the interest of the whole school, the student body, teachers and faculty . . . as well as the rights of individual bad actors. The ability to strike that balance, and to do it fairly, more than likely influences the effectiveness of the zero-tolerance policies.
Whether or not zero tolerance is effective brings about more argumentative material. Statistical data reports a significant drop in school homicides following the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado strongly suggesting, as Rutledge advocates, zero tolerance has in fact led to safer schools for students. (nces.ed.gov) Kay S. Hymowitz, a contributing editor for a magazine published by the conservative Manhattan Institute, stated that, “The arrest of a pair of New Jersey 8-year-olds for pointing paper guns at classmates was just the kind of episode that leads people to question zero-tolerance policies.” (Billitteri) Statements such as those insinuate a basis of anti-zero tolerance and further complicate the controversy. However it must be noted that, “It’s not so easy to distinguish the prankster from the wild-eyed adolescent with a [lethal] plan when lives are at stake,” Hymowitz says. (Billitteri) How is one supposed to know the intentions of a giving situation? While the general consensus will no doubtingly agree that a pair of 8-year-olds pose little to no threat, on the slight chance of an event occurring, the questions of “why weren’t they stopped” or “how could you assume” will undeniably be asked, and in this sense, it is without a doubt better to assume the ugly and end up being wrong, than to assume no harm and end up with fatal consequences’. Hymowitz continues, stating that, “Zero tolerance may be more symptom than cure for the uneasy disciplinary climate of our schools. Certainly it’s no final answer to out-of-control 5-year-olds or revenge-crazed teenagers. But as the threats continue and the bombs and guns appear, it’s all we’ve got.” (Billitteri) Bringing back the topic of effectiveness, those with the “get-tough” attitude witness no proof of zero tolerance policies creating a safer environment in schools. In fact, a decade of research on such policies by the American Psychological Association have concluded that zero tolerance “can actually increase bad behavior and also lead to higher dropout rates.” “Schools are not any safer or more effective in disciplining children than before these zero-tolerance policies were implemented,” the association said. (APA) There is much debate surrounding zero tolerance, however, the real problems arise when zero tolerance is set in motion.
The question at hand to those who oppose zero tolerance falls into the legitimacy and fairness of punishment. In Newark, Delaware a 6 year old boy took a camping utensil which can be used as a knife, fork and spoon to school. Naturally anyone can safely assume there is no harm, however, Zachary Christie received 45 days in the district’s reform school. (Urbina) In this case, the well being of the students surrounding Christie is thrown out of the window and it comes down to its consistency in being enforced. The boy clearly had no intention in causing harm, however, was treated as if he was. The only reason he was apprehended as a criminal was to set an example. Those who think to bring anything similar to school, be it a fork, a knife, or gun, will think back to Christie and decided not to. While this incident might seem like one of a kind, unfortunately, it is far from that. Zachary Christie is not alone, there are handfuls of cases which bring about much controversy over zero tolerance. During October of 1999 in Atlanta, Georgia a 15 year old South Cobb High School sophomore brought an unloaded gun to school. When school officials found the gun in his backpack he was immediately and permanently expelled from the school district. (Skiba 3) A sixth grader at Whitman Middle School in Seattle, Washington brought a squirt gun, painted black and brown to school during September of 1999. He was expelled after the gun fell out of his book bag during lunch. (Skiba 4) David Silverstein, a seventh grader in Glendale, Arizona, motivated by the film October Sky, brought a homemade rocket to school made out of a potato chip canister. Considered a weapon, school officials suspended him upon arrival. (Skiba 4) During May of 1999 in Pensacola, Florida a sophomore received a 10 day suspension and was threatened with expulsion after loaning her nail clippers to a friend temporarily. Quoted from the principal, “Life goes on. You learn from your mistakes. We are recommending expulsion.” (Skiba 4) On the morning of a late June day in 1998 two high school seniors in Pinellas County, Florida arrived to school and were immediately expelled. School officials were tipped off that the boys had skipped school and smoked marijuana with some friends. A federal appeals court ruled against the district, stating that the school had not “even a scintilla of evidence” that the two boys were under the influence at school. (Skiba 5) In February of 1999 in Ewing, New Jersey a freshman was accused of taking drugs and was asked to visit the school nurse to check his pulse and blood pressure. His suspicious behavior which forced this drug screen upon him was because he dozed off in his social studies class. The principal immediately suspended him after he refused to submit to a drug test. Eventually the boy was forced into taking a drug test as the principle declined to readmit him until he had done so. (Skiba 5) A sophomore at Westlake High School in February of 1999 was suspended for two full school weeks after he announced his French teacher was not fluent in the language during the school’s morning announcements. School officials considered the comment as a verbal attack against the teacher in an attempt to justify their actions. (Skiba 6) These cases do nothing but illustrate the negative aspects of zero tolerance. However, one can see the argument for zero tolerance as any further actions were eliminated before they could occur. Even though, at what point are schools sending the wrong message, and ultimately, when will this wrong message be more detrimental to students?
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Another topic of discussion is the message zero tolerance sends to the students. Should the punishment fit the crime? Those in favor of zero tolerance tend to believe the only way to clarify right from wrong is to strictly enforce school policies, and consistently enforce them. While this without a doubt protects the students from possible threats, at the same time one can question whether or not this also sends a negative message. Punishing a student for a petty mistake with grave consequences instills fear among the student population and scares them into conformity. This is not a message students should be receiving. Treating those like Zachary Christie, to use as an example, can negatively affect their mental health. It’s much more difficult for Christie to tell right from wrong, and in his mind, he has not done anything wrong, yet still received punishment. To Christie he got punished for nothing, which will affect his psychological wellbeing unconstructively. How will he learn from his mistake and how will he look at other things in life now that he has been severally punished for such a small and innocent act? He is 6 years old, he does not need to go through this. Another negative aspect of zero tolerance is that it hinders education. Students unnecessarily miss school to serve their punishment which also leads to future problems. Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, reported that “a kid [student] who’s been suspended is statistically at high risk of dropping out of school.” (Steiny) Supporting zero tolerance, Kay S. Hymowitz, a contributing editor for a magazine published by the conservative Manhattan Institute, wrote that “It’s not so easy to distinguish the prankster from the wild-eyed adolescent with a [lethal] plan when lives are at stake.” (Billitteri) To school officials, the assumption of trusting a student who has made a mistake, or is joking around, is a much greater risk. One cannot truly know the intentions of a given situation, only can one assume what is going on. To those who are pro-zero tolerance, safety comes first, no matter how accomplished.
Zero tolerance is a very intriguing topic simply because of the complexity behind it. Those in favor make incredibly compelling and persuasive arguments. However on the flip side, those who are against it make just as valid arguments. I believe there is too much information out there to be able to claim being on one extreme end of the spectrum, whether it’s for or against zero tolerance. While to some extent zero tolerance is effective, after going through the plethora amount of research, I ultimately believe zero tolerance is a hindrance and a negative aspect on school safety. Not ended, but rethought I believe zero tolerance needs to go through. While the core idea behind it, safety for every student, sounds great on paper, in practice, it has obviously failed. While there are not many, there are still several cases where small acts have led to obscene punishments, completely blown out of proportion. Another negative aspect of zero tolerance is that it sends the wrong message to students. For these reasons, zero tolerance needs to end in public schools, and needs to be rethought.
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