The Intolerance of Zero Tolerance

by Grant Mercer, Age 16
Submitting Teacher: Stephanie Tatum

Nine-year-old Alden Steward brought out his "one ring" on the playground. Yes, the same ring forged within the bowels of Mount Doom in Middle Earth and immortalized by J.R.R. Tolkien was apparently now in the possession of the Texas fourth grader. Placing the ring on a classmate's head, he granted invisibility to the classmate, allowing him to walk in the footsteps of Bilbo Baggins. What followed though was not invisibility for his friend, but rather suspension for Alden who was charged with making a terroristic threat. Alden had run afoul of his school's zero tolerance regulations toward weapons.

Zero tolerance regulations were born out of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act. This act required all schools receiving federal funds to expel any student bringing a weapon to school. If the student was not expelled, the federal funding, an amount close to 10% of most school systems' budgets, would be lost. Under the Act, local school authorities had the power to decide what constituted a weapon. While the Act was originally designed to protect students from guns and bombs, after the 1999 Columbine massacre, nervous school officials tightened their zero tolerance policies to automatically punish any student possessing any object or saying any words deemed remotely dangerous. A rational fear of guns and bombs had dissolved into an irrational fear of weapons, even those as farfetched as imaginary rings.

John Stossel, in his book No They Can't,examines other cases of zero tolerance regulations gone awry. Lindsay Brown, an honors student in Fort Myers, Florida, spent the day behind bars at a county jail, charged with felony weapons possession. Her offense was a five-inch-long butter knife spotted on the floorboard of her car, a knife that had fallen out of a box as she had helped move her grandmother to a new house that past weekend. Ultimately suspended for five days, she missed her high school graduation. As her high school principal informed a local paper, "A weapon is a weapon."

Another example described in No They Can'tinvolved four five-year-old boys, all kindergartners, playing cops and robbers at recess. One boy shouted out, "I have a bazooka." For this offense, all four boys were suspended for three days from their New Jersey elementary school for violating the school district's zero tolerance policy. The school principal said, "We cannot take any of these statements in a light manner." The district superintendent supported the school's policy by adding, "This is a no-tolerance policy. We're very firm on weapons and threats." The "bazooka" was never located by school officials.

As Stossel notes, "zero tolerance for things resembling violence quickly bleeds over into zero tolerance for well, much of anything." In New York, a 12-year-old middle school girl was escorted out of the school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk. Her scrawled words, "I like Theresa and Julie," were declared a sign that she did not like other students and might wish them harm. In Houston, an eighth grader was suspended for wearing rosary beads as her school district considered the beads a possible sign of gang involvement. In Maryland, a boy tried to nibble a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun and was promptly suspended. No area of the country is immune from what is masquerading as safety improvements for children.

Zero tolerance policies are ineffective for several reasons. First, these policies do not consider the student's intentions. In Tennessee, two children were expelled for zero tolerance violations on the same day. One boy, a kindergarten student, brought a 1-inch-tall Lego character to school for show and tell. The plastic police officer had a painted-on gun as part of his uniform. That dab of black paint was considered a violation of the school's zero tolerance policy. The second student expelled that day, a 9thgrade boy, had walked down the school's hallway with a loaded gun, seeking to kill the school principal. Both boys were expelled for three weeks. With very different intents and possible outcomes, the punishments were yet the same. The American Bar Association has condemned these draconian policies as a "one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems confronted by schools."

Second, zero tolerance policies punish those seeking to do the right thing. For example, a Cub Scout in New Delaware accidently packed a combination knife/fork/spoon camping utensil in his lunchbox. His friend told him the 1-inch plastic tool was against the rules, so he turned it in to his teacher. School officials determined that he had violated their zero tolerance policy on weapons and suspended him. His parents are now fighting his sentence of 45 days to be spent at a reform school. As the Cub Scout noted, "I think the rules are what is wrong, not me."

Third, zero tolerance criminalizes innocent, child-like behavior. A freshman at a Virginia high school, Andrew Mikel, was suspended for shooting three spitballs at his brother during his lunch period. While the initial punishment was for ten days, the school board increased the suspension to an entire semester and asked local law enforcement to file criminal assault charges against him. Having two brothers myself, I understand the need to sometimes pepper one's siblings with saliva-soaked wads of paper, but does it deserve jail time? Never.

Zero tolerance regulations for weapons in schools quite simply do not work. There is no evidence, according to the U.S. Department of Education, that these arbitrary punishments have done anything to decrease school violence. As John Stossel observed in his video, War on the Little Guy, these regulations are all too often "control for its own sake." They have allowed common sense to take a vacation, leaving fear in charge. Schools need to have the freedom to make individual decisions on both real and perceived acts of violence, not forced to levy harsh, ineffective punishments for the sake of maintaining federal funds. Zero tolerance should no longer be tolerated.


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Stossel, John. No, They Can't: Why Government Fails--but Individuals Succeed. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012. Print.

"Texas Student, 9, Reportedly Suspended over 'Hobbit' Ring Threat." Fox News. FOX News Network, 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

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