Zero tolerance and teachable moments

October 17th, 2011


      Kevin Seiff’s Washington Post article, “Arlington to offer second chance for teens caught using alcohol or drugs”, addresses the ‘zero tolerance’ policies in effect in public schools. A ‘zero tolerance’ policy is “generally the term means that a harsh predefined mandatory consequence is applied to a violation of school rules without regard to the seriousness of the behavior, mitigating circumstances, or the situational context” (APA, 2006, pg. 1).  In this particular district, when a student is caught with, or under the influence of, drugs or alcohol on school property they are suspended and criminally charged. Opponents of this policy state that this drastic and “life-altering” punishment prevents people with substance abuse problems from coming forward for help. Also, these punishments “… like suspension and court involvement, are overly punitive and do little to change behavior” (Seiff, 2011, pg. 1). Instead, for first time offenses, the school district is offering a three day, guardian attended session on drug and alcohol abuse. They want to promote early intervention, prevention, and education instead of punishment.

See article here:

‘Zero tolerance’ policies have been around for a while. According to Skiba and Peterson (1999) these policies began in our military with drugs and then expanded to our public school in the late 1980s and by “… 1993 zero tolerance policies were being adopted by school boards across the country, often broadened to include not only drugs and weapons but also tobacco-related offenses and school disruption.” (pg. 2) Many of these rules came into effect as a response to the rise in school violence, particularly in the case of guns in schools following the wake of school shootings that happened in the 1990s.  According to our text, schools should be a safe, substance free environment for students. One of the primary jobs of teachers and administration is to ensure that environment. However, these ‘zero tolerance’ policies in schools sometimes unnecessarily hurt where they mean to help.  

 No one debates that a gun does not belong in the class room. It is even reasonable that having a toy gun could create a panic that would endanger the lives of students. Therefore schools are enforcing these tougher rules. Hymowitz (2001) states that the results of ‘zero tolerance’ policies, “ …do suggest that the decline in school violence may have more to do with students being quicker to report suspicious classmates and authorities taking those reports seriously” (pg. 1). So while expulsion may not be a deterrent to a would-be shooter, at least students and authorities are taking steps to realize potential problems before they arrive at that point.  This is a clear benefit of the ‘zero tolerance’ policy.

However, these policies are controversial. Peterson (2008) states, “Zero tolerance is incompatible with the principle that the punishment must fit the crime, and that the severity of the crime and the context in which it occurred should be considered in determining the punishment.” (pg. 1).  Over the years, “… increasingly broad interpretations of zero tolerance have resulted in a near epidemic of suspensions and expulsions for seemingly trivial events” (Skiba, 1999, pg. 3-4).  Children are expelled or suspended for sharing mints, cough drops, bringing a beeper in for show and tell.

For a list of examples of controversial ‘zero tolerance’ punishments see this article:

Is there a balance between effectively using punishment and it going too far? Arlington clearly has that debate on its hands. Their battle is not with guns or violence, arguably easier offences to find immediately punishable, but with the effects of drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol are addictive substances; dangerous to students at a much slower, and more reversible, rate than guns.  I believe, like Arlington schools, a ‘first offense’ policy might go much farther than immediate punishment.  Students who are involved with such things are not gaining anything by being forced out of the school system. In these first offense cases there is a wonderful opportunity for a ‘teachable moment’, which Arlington seems to be taking advantage of.



American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (February, 2006). Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from:

 Hymowitz, K. (2001). Zero tolerance is school’s first line of defense. Newsday Inc. pg. 1-2.

 Peterson, R. (2008). Fact Sheet 3: Zero tolerance policy in schools. Muncie, IN.: Consortium to Prevent School Violence

Skiba, R., Peterson, R. (1999). The dark side of zero tolerance: can punishment lead to safe schools?. Retrieved from:

 Ornstein, A., Levine, D., Gutek, G. (2011). Foundation of education (11th Ed.). Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth.

Seiff, K. (2011). Arlington to offer second chance to teens caught using drugs or alcohol. Retrieved from:



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