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Zero Patience for Zero Tolerance

News shows recently showed video of 14 police officers charging a crowded high-school corridor with guns drawn in a drug sweep. Students at Stratford Creek High School in Goose Creek, S.C., were forced onto their knees or against walls, while dogs sniffed their backpacks for drugs.

None were found. Although the incident was extreme, it was not an aberration but the logical consequences of "zero tolerance" policies, defended by both the school and the police. Zero tolerance must be abandoned, especially in connection with children.

Zero-tolerance policies have resulted in some children being placed in the criminal justice system. Two examples currently in the news: A Missouri judge ruled that a 6-year-old boy suspected of killing his grandfather could be charged as an adult; a New Jersey prosecutor's office has charged a 7-year-old boy with molesting a 5-year-old girl in an incident that the defense attorney describes as "playing doctor."

For most children, zero tolerance is experienced in schools with administrative rules that purportedly enforce safety and discipline. Arguably, the administrative rules are actually a reaction to federal threats to cut funds. For example, in 1994 Congress passed the Gun-Free School Act by which states had to implement zero tolerance on weapons or lose federal money. Many schools rigorously interpreted zero tolerance to include the prohibition of anything even looking like a weapon. They adopted broad definitions of dangerous behavior, which allowed for no exceptions.

Soon the media spilled over with stories of young children being suspended or treated like felons for playing with water pistols, paper guns or even for pointing their fingers at each other and saying "bang."

The punishment for possessing an obvious toy became the same as for possessing a real weapon because zero tolerance means zero distinctions. Zero tolerance takes discretion and evaluation away from educators and mandates responses that can be wildly inappropriate. Behavior that used to be corrected by detention or a trip to the principal's office now receives suspension, expulsion or even police involvement. What used to be the last resort has become the first and only option.

In Madison, Wis., Chris Schmidt, a sixth-grader with a spotless record, faced a year's suspension because he brought a kitchen knife to school for a science project. Asked about the case, Valencia Douglas, an assistant superintendent of schools in Madison, said, "We can't say, 'You're a good kid, so your mistake doesn't have as much force, or importance behind it.'"

And so, an 11-year-old is taken away in handcuffs for drawing a picture of a gun; an 8-year-old faces expulsion for a keychain that contained a cheap nail clipper; a fifth-grader is suspended for drawing the World Trade Center being hit by an airplane ... The stories go on and on.

The quantity of these incidents illustrates that the vicious consequences of zero tolerance are not isolated events. They are embedded into one of the most important institutions of society: the educational system. When the school principal in Goose Creek justified police pointing guns at innocent students, he did so by saying he would use "any means" to keep his school "clean."

backlash is developing among students who are reportedly saying the same thing nationwide. Many schools now resemble prisons with hidden security cameras, metal detectors, guards, random searches, drug-sniffing dogs, and searches without warrants. 

Zero tolerance is commonly justified on the grounds of children's safety. But, in studying "unsafe" schools that had enforced zero-tolerance policies for four years, the National Center for Education Statistics found little change (Skiba & Peterson, 1999).

In commenting on the study in the journal "National Association of Elementary School Principals," Roger W. Ashford wrote, "The study concludes, however, that even though there is little data to prove the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies, such initiatives serve to reassure the public that something is being done to ensure safety. Therefore, the popularity of zero-tolerance policies may have less to do with their actual effect than the image they portray of schools taking harsh measures to prevent violence. Whether the message actually changes student behavior may be less important than the reassurance it provides to administrators, teachers and parents."

Everyone recognizes that zero-tolerance policies were developed in response to legitimate concerns, such as those raised by the high-school shootings at Columbine. But, increasingly, people are also recognizing that zero tolerance creates as many -- and perhaps more -- problems than the original difficulties they were meant to solve.

Alternatives are being suggested. For example, Richard L. Curwin and Allen N. Mendler have co-authored a book entitled "As Tough as Necessary: Countering Aggression, Violence, and Hostility in Schools" (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999). They advocate a wide range of responses to school violence, which depend upon an evaluation of the circumstances surrounding each incident. The responses include "counseling, restitution, behavioral planning, behavior rehearsal, suspension with training or educational experience, and police referral."

Another alternative is homeschooling.

There is little evidence that zero tolerance produces safety. Instead, it strips away the safeguards of a peaceful society: compassion, due process, good will, presumption of innocence, tolerance, discretion, humor ... It victimizes the most vulnerable citizens: children.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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