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Zero Tolerance: Just or Intrusive?

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Zero Tolerance: Just or Intrusive?

At the start of each school year, teachers are faced with an array of obstacles. The influx of another batch of bright, new faces means staff members have to learn each student’s learning abilities, personalities, and they must assess each child for possible problems that may arise. Some students may carry shadowy home lives, carefully hidden behind a thin veil that has yet to reveal itself. Some children and their families’ past history may already be well known by the staff; however, some remain a mystery that slowly reveals itself throughout the year, piece by piece, through the child’s and sometimes parent’s interaction with the school and peers. Unfortunately, interactions with unruly children and difficult parents may lead to potentially worsening or harmful events later on in future encounters. For the protection of both teachers and fellow students, a zero tolerance policy was implemented in most schools in the United States. A zero tolerance policy is a set of rules that prohibits students from bringing certain items to school and also bans certain behavior types. Violation of this policy immediately results in stiff, non-negotiable punishment. Some argue that enforcement of this policy has been taken to extremes in some instances, and that punishments should be decided on a case-by-case basis, but how and where will the line be drawn when it comes to the personal safety and well-being of students and staff? From a general conception that all of these issues could be dealt with under one steadfast rule is where the zero tolerance policy was implemented to be enforced without prejudice; however, some would still insist that the policy is overkill and wrought with inflexibility and absolutism. The solution is simple. Zero tolerance policies are clear and allow no room for complacency. If these policies are violated in any way, big or small, punishment will be given in the same way for every situation.

Standardized polices should be enforced across the board. Others would argue this policy is too extreme as it has no deviation for circumstances, making some punishments seem harsh and outlandish. The zero tolerance of weapons in schools originated from the Gun Free Schools Act established in 1994. This act plainly states that a firearm or any other weapon cannot be brought onto school property for any reason (Simons). This act seems reasonable until a child is suspended or expelled for bringing a plastic knife in their lunchbox to school to use solely for eating purposes. Although seemingly innocent intentions were meant by this student, how can staff determine that harm will not ensue from such a simple action? Another example, after arriving at school one morning a twelve year old found he had left his knife in his coat pocket from where he had taken it to his Boy Scout meeting the night before. Now sure exactly what to do the child placed the knife in his school locker, but his friend had seen him putting the knife away and reported it causing the boy to be arrested (”Zero Tolerance” ) Was this just and fair treatment? What were the intentions of this child and how can staff maintain their safety as well as the safety of other students? Parents of this child argued that there was no intent to do harm. Zero tolerance policies ban activities such as these for one simple reason, to protect others. Although it is nearly impossible to determine someone’s intent in the midst of a situation, making clear and concise regulations with stiff punishments mandatory proved to be necessary. While the suspension and expulsion of what might be an innocent-appearing event may seem to be excessive in some situations, a knife-wielding, irrational thinking, teenager in a close quarter’s situation could end in mass destruction.

Moreover, zero tolerance policies express a headstrong stand on weapons causing criticism from those saying the policy infringes on a student’s rights of free speech. Although freedom of speech is a civil liberty in the United States, for students in America there appears to be an altered set of rules so as not to offend the public at large. This at times seems almost contradictory when those same rule makers are encouraging the same offensive behavior they are repressing in the schools by purchasing tickets to horror movies, heavy metal, or punk rock concerts and asking for the creators of these events to display more or worse scenes or sounds each time they appear. Author David Mitchell in his article for zero tolerance policies, states that

they were designed to be proactive, even if that proactivity results in infringing upon a student's free speech rights. The reasoning is that when a student brings a weapon to campus it may be too late at that point to prevent the harm that may occur. Thus, rather than risk the harms, administrators assess childhood behavior differently. For example, in the past, a student who submitted a piece of creative writing or an art project that depicted an act of violence would have been counseled or the teacher would have discussed what the student intended with the work. Under the current system, however, the student is referred to school administrators for violating the zero-tolerance policy. With this proactive approach, student speech is viewed with suspicion. Naturally, students and their advocates have challenged the application of zero-tolerance policies as an infringement on the students' First Amendment rights to free speech. An illustrative case of this involves a 17-year-old high school student who wrote a poem following the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that occurred in 2012. In a personal notebook, the student wrote a poem reflecting upon the shooter. A teacher found the poem and gave it to the principal. The



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