Zero Tolerance = Zero Common Sense = Zero Justice
This page is devoted to challenging and exposing primary and secondary
school administrators' mindlessly inflexible enforcement of so-called
"zero-tolerance" policies, which dictate that all infractions -- however
minor or inadvertent -- against certain regulations will be punished as major offenses.
Don't get me wrong -- I understand the desire to make a strong statement
against drugs, weapons, and harassment in schools. I can even understand it
when school administrators reserve for themselves the right to punish
infractions according to their own discretion and judgement, after taking
into account the individual circumstances of each particular case -- even
though the violations may sometimes appear to be minor, or merely
What I can't understand is when school
administrators deny themselves such discretion, and
refuse to take into account the particular
circumstances of each case -- elevating "zero-tolerance" into a rigid
and absolute standard that is more important than teaching and
learning, and also more important than common sense and justice.
This intentional self-lobotomization on the part of school
administrators, this deliberate choice to turn themselves into mindlessly
inflexible bureaucrat-droids, has produced results that would be
pathetically ludicrous -- except that it's no laughing matter when
innocent children, who have no criminal or malicious intent, have their learning disrupted by long expulsions, or are
labelled as "drug-smugglers", "weapons-carriers", or "sexual harassers" in
semi-permanent academic records that may be shown to law-enforcement
officials or potential employers.
Apparently some bureaucrats feel that the highest purpose of
educational policy is to produce a maze of rules and regulations in the
spirit of "CYA", a code which will prescribe administrators' minutest
decisions -- and so allow them to fend off all legal or political
second-guessing by pointing out that their actions were dictated by, and
were in full conformance with, sub-section §547862(b)(xcvii)
sub-paragraph ±37½ clause 97-D. Well, I have news for these
so-called "educators": taxpayers pay their salaries in order for them to
make wise decisions in the furtherance of learning (remember "learning"?),
not to be automatons with well-shielded rear ends. When administrators
(or school boards) bind their own hands in this way with rigid and
inflexible codes, what they're really saying is that they have no
confidence in their own ability to do the job that the public expects them
to do (to make good decisions based at least partly on the particular
details of each individual matter) -- in which case they should perhaps
consider going into some other line of work.
[7/99 note: This page was originally written in 2/98, but
nothing that has happened since then has caused me to change my mind. The
zero-tolerance policies which have caused so many problems -- and held up so
many school authorities to national and international ridicule and derision,
not to mention lawsuits -- have never been those which prohibit actual
firearms; and in any case, the way to prevent crime in schools is
not to expell 10-year-olds whose parents happen to have
packed a butter knife in their lunchbox, but rather for adults to be
perceptively aware and responsive to the conditions of individual
This page is very much under construction; it was pretty much dormant for a
year and half, but I have started working on it again, and hope to regularly
add brief summaries and/or links to media accounts of some of the more
ridiculous and sad cases that have gained public attention, and also links
to various commentaries and discussions on "zero tolerance" extremism in
primary and secondary education. I will also include on this page any
thoughtful comments (they may be vehement, but must be reasoned) that I
receive at the e-mail address
(Please feel free to copy the small image at left for use on your own
(This page contains numerous links that are only checked and updated once every several months or so, so that most of the time there will probably be at least a few bad, outdated links to external sites.)
Sites set up in connection with specific Zero-tolerance incidents
- Phi Delta Kappan Jan. 1999 "The Dark Side of Zero Tolerance: Can Punishment Lead to Safe Schools?" by Russ Skiba and Reece Peterson (Good academic overview article)
Quote: "Test cases of school district zero tolerance policies reported in the media from 1988 to 1993 did involve difficult judgments about the severity of the punishment, but they were also clearly concerned with weapons and drugs [...] Over time, however, increasingly broad interpretations of zero tolerance have resulted in a near epidemic of suspensions and expulsions for seemingly trivial events."
- Chicago Sun-Times May 17, 1998: "Fad For `Zero Tolerance' Is Leaving A Moral Void", by Neil Steinberg (good practical philosophical analysis, in response to incident in which student was expelled for firing paper clip with a rubber band)
Quote: "When did using your judgment go out of style?
Why are people frantically trying to abandon what slim responsibility
they possess in favor of rigid rules and procedures? What is wrong
with letting individual educators decide on a case-by-case basis? If
we trust them so little that we need rules for all they do, then they
shouldn't be left alone with kids in the first place."
- USA Today Apr. 13 1999: "Zero-tolerance policies lack flexibility" by Dennis Cauchon (even many early advocates of zero tolerance are now disgusted by the excesses of school boards and educational bureaucrats)
- National Coalition of Advocates for Students, "Mobilization for Equity newsletter", Issue V, Nov. 1998
Quote: "According to the report [on the effects of
Michigan's Zero Tolerance policies], many students are expelled for
petty offenses and are denied due process procedures prior to
expulsion. Few students are reinstated following expulsion, even
though they are eligible to return to school. Only a fraction of
those expelled are provided with any form of alternative education,
despite the fact that most are legally required to attend school
because they are under 16 years of age."
- New (February 2001): American Bar association issues statement opposing school "Zero Tolerance" policies, and urges that "school officials should exercise sound discretion that is consistent with principles of due process and considers the individual student and the particular circumstances of misconduct".
- "Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice" by Russell Skiba (Well-balanced scholarly moderate analysis which "explores the evidence concerning the effectiveness of zero tolerance in contributing toward school safety or reduced student disruption".)
- California Attorney general issues legal opinion against school board's "Zero Tolerance" policies, as reported in "California Education Law Report", Feb. 1998:
"the school district must look at the individual
circumstance of the pupil's academic record... To do otherwise
``may deny the pupil's right to due process,'' said the Attorney
General. ``A District may not refuse to exercise the discretionary
authority granted to it under the statutory scheme.''"
(The full text of the opinion is available from the Attorney general's official website -- put the words "zero tolerance" into the search form.)
- New York Times, May 17, 2001, "Crackdown on Threats in Schools Fails a Test", by Kate Zernike
- The Seattle Times Oct. 7 1998: School bureaucrat admits that district's ultra-rigid and inflexible application of zero-tolerance policy (in the case of plastic squirt gun that fell out of a student's backpack) is in violation of state policy, that the student would have been permanently expelled if his parents had not hired a lawyer, and that the district is considering whether an apology is merited
- Tennessee The Oak Ridger July 25 1997: "Beepers pulled from zero-tolerance policy" (School board faces up to fact that its policies have led to absurd and extreme results)
- Independent Alligator (University of Florida) Sept. 26 1997: "Student suspended for Certs"
- Reason magazine, April 1997: "Brickbats"
- Amarillo Globe-News Nov. 14 1997: "Student suspended for giving cough drop"
- CNN Oct. 29, 1996: "Kindergartner suspended for bringing beeper to school"
- Beloit, Wisconsin Daily News Sept. 26, 1996: "Busted for a buss -- 6-year-old punished by school"
- Fox News, May 23rd, 2001: "Honor Student Arrested Under Zero-Tolerance Policy" "Fort Myers, Fla. - A National Merit Scholar was sent to jail and will miss graduation after a kitchen knife was found in her car [i.e. not in the school] and officials invoked a policy that forbids weapons on campus."
- Nando Times (Raleigh, North Carolina News and Observer) Oct. 8 1996: "Parents not satisfied after school board changes sexual harassment policy"
- National Drug Strategy Network NewsBriefs Newsletter Nov. 1996: "Students Suspended for Carrying Midol, Advil"
- National Drug Strategy Network NewsBriefs Newsletter Dec. 1996: "School Board Upholds Girl's Suspension for Advil"
- CNN Oct. 3, 1996: "`Midol suspension' ends: Honor student returns to class"
- CNN Oct. 8, 1996: "Briefs: Girl in `Midol suspension' charges race discrimination"
- CNN Oct. 2 1996: "Briefs: Suspension lifted on 2nd-grader accused of sexual harassment"
- People magazine March 5 1997 (includes brief account of Kameryan Lueng case)
- The following quote is included far down on this page ("Skyview Local Summary"), which is over a megabyte long:
"Gobles high school girl gets to go back next week.
Amber Nash made national news after the school suspended her for bringing a
butter knife to school -- to cut up a pan of brownies she made for her
friends. Once the school nailed her on the weapons rule, she could have been
suspended permanently. She's not a trouble-maker, and has no history of
misbehavior, violence, weapons violations, felonies or excessive tardiness.
The school board meeting last night was packed, and they went into "executive
session" (which means they kicked everybody else out). Amber made her case,
and a wave of common sense overcame everybody. The board set her suspension
at 10 days starting last week, so she'll be back in class next Tuesday. Her
teachers will send work home to her. And she hopes it doesn't mess up her
scholarship applications. (Hope this helps those gang members decide to leave
their automatic assault guns at home.)"
- Jenna Fribley -- haven't found a good on-line link to this case; apparently school administrators/board gave a harsh penalty (suspension for whole semester), that would threaten her ability to apply for college, over a Swiss Army knife; her parents pursued legal action while the school did hard-line stonewalling; she withdrew from public school, and attended a private school, where her tuition was paid by an anonymous benefactor.
- Also haven't found good link to cases where all students involved in a fight are punished equally harshly, regardless of circumstances -- so that if one student were to attack another student out of the blue with no provocation, both students would be suspended the same length of time.
Opinion and Analysis Pieces
(Some of the articles in publications that are minor or non-existent in the "real" world of print media are worthy of attention here.)
- The Minnesota Daily (University of Minnesota) Oct. 25 1996: "School policies show lack of common sense" (quote:
"...in each of these stories we find a poorly
constructed school policy, and an administration that finds it easier
to hold the students strictly and blindly to the policy than to apply
good judgment to each situation individually. The rules, created to
protect the students, become meaningless obstructions when they're
haphazardly used as justifications for punishment.")
- "This is True: Losing my Tolerance for ``Zero Tolerance''" by Randy Cassingham (syndicated columnist)
``"Zero Tolerance" means
little more than "Zero Thought", and means "Zero Discretion" is
given to the teachers and principals who we hired to educate our
kids. Passing an inflexible law does not stop murder -- which
is already quite illegal. Terrorizing a little kid for sharing candy
-- and justifying it afterward when an outraged parent complains --
doesn't stop drug use.''
- Education Reporter (Eagle Forum) May 1997: "Common Sense Urged over `Zero Tolerance'"
- Education Reporter (Eagle Forum) November 1996: "`Zero Tolerance' Creates Imaginary Problems, Penalizes Innocence"
- New York Times March 12 1997: "Crime Rules Without Mercy Are Snaring Schoolchildren Without Malice" (discusses Kameryan Lueng case, among others; only available to paying subscribers of NYT on-line version)
- "Less Than Zero Tolerance: It's becoming illegal to be a teenager" (Northwestern University)
- Education Weekly Oct. 23 1996: "Suspensions Spur Debate Over Discipline Codes"
- Education Weekly March 26 1997: "Zero-Tolerance Laws Getting a Second Look"
- Beloit, Wisconsin Daily News Oct. 7 1996: "PC for kindergarteners, or responsible actions by schools?"
- Slate Oct. 11 1996: "Teen-age Midol Junkies"
- Phyllis Schlafly column (Eagle Forum) Oct. 24 1996: "Drawing The Line Between Legal and Illegal" (I can't believe I actually agree with Phyllis Schlafly! More indication that the basic dividing line on this issue is between stupidity and common sense, not between left or right...)
- American Bar Association legal analysis: "Weapons in Schools and Zero Tolerance"
- Montreal Gazette Oct. 7 1996: "Rules trivialize sexual harassment"
- CNN March 13 1997: "First-grader's kiss not harassment, new guidelines say"
- Amarillo Globe-News: March 27 1997: "Opinion: Zero tolerance rule needs repair"
- Civil Liberties at Mining Company: Short Take: More schoolyard follies
- Civil Liberty Feature at The Mining Company Oct 28 1997: "Toy Soldiers"
- Crime and Punishment at the Mining Company: "Zero Tolerance" Must End Now
- Crime and Punishment at the Mining Company: The Zero-Tolerance Follies
- "American Federation of Teachers: Where We Stand: January 26, 1997: Zero Tolerance" (Albert Shanker, the man whose possession of a nuclear bomb will lead to the collapse of civilization -- according to Woody Allen -- falls all over himself in his zealous eagerness to endorse rigid and inflexible zero tolerance policies; interestingly, the new president of the AFT, Sandra Feldman, is quoted in the USA Today article linked to above as being in favor of some moderation and discretion in applying zero tolerance, as opposed to Al "Hanging Judge" Shanker)
- New Republic March 29 1993: "During the 1991-92 school year, more than 1,000 children in Minneapolis alone were suspended or expelled on charges related to sexual harassment."
- San Diego State University Daily Aztec Oct. 10 1996: "Schools: Lighten up"
- Houston Chronicle Oct. 8 1996: "Editorial: Bad Judgment: When school officials forget common sense"
- Phi Delta Kappan June 1997: "Courtside: The Midol Case" (legal analysis of Kimberly Smartt affair)
- University of North Carolina Daily Tar Heel Nov. 14 1996: "Modern juvenile delinquency more than child's play" (cites many cases, draws historical parallel)
- Detroit News March 3 1997 Letters to the Editor
- A good selection of details of recent incidents (warning: deteriorates into conspiracy-theory rant towards end)
- University of Houston Cougar Oct. 17 1996: "Schools: Front lines in deadly war on Midol"
- Discussion of "Zero Tolerance" with regard to recent incidents involving alcohol
- Explanation of Tennessee state "Zero Tolerance" laws (so-called -- a large measure of discretion and flexibility is in fact preserved)
- Augusta Chronicle Oct 19 1996: "A Kid-threatening World"
- Wake Forest University Old Gold and Black Oct 31 1996: "Abuses of propriety hurt society" (reductio ad absurdum)
(Apparently dead links -- I'm keeping these up to give an idea of the
variety of media coverage that has occurred; I also may try to dig around in
some of these sites to find changed URLs:)
- The Seattle Times Dec. 19 1996: "Boy who was punished for kissing girl gets to lead a parade"
- Salt Lake Tribune Oct. 5 1996: "Superintendent Gives Apology to First-Grader who Kissed Girl"
- The Seattle Times May 31 1998: "Teen wine sip in France vs. zero tolerance"
- Richmond Times-Dispatch Mar. 10 1998 "House education panel OKs ``Advil bill''" (State Legislators see need to rein in absurd school district policies)
- Mt. Shasta News Nov. 4 1998 -- Man bites dog! School administrators act sensibly, taking into account individual circumstances, and don't pursue zero tolerance policies to absurd extremes of rigidity
- Dubuque Telegraph-Herald Oct. 26 1996: "Girl, 11, arrested over knife in lunch box"
- Salt Lake Tribune Nov. 28 1996: "Student can Clear Record on Knife Incident"
- "Zero tolerance is a bad idea in schools." (excerpt from Northeastern Illinois University slide presentation)
- Salt Lake Tribune Nov. 17 1996: "Educators say Public Demands Less Tolerance: But Highly Publicized Cases Cast Schools in a Negative Light"
- Salt Lake Tribune Oct. 23 1996: "Students Sing... School Days, Cruel Days, Lots Of PC Rule Days"
- The Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis Sagamore Nov. 18 1996: "New laws are intrusive and tyrannical"
- The Brazosport Facts Nov. 16 1997: "ZERO TOLERANCE: Discipline at schools tighter, but is it better?"
- South Bend, Indiana Tribune Nov. 23 1997: "Zero-tolerance policies challenged for inflexibility"
- Washington Post Sept. 23 1996: "Boy Brought Up on a Candy Rap"
- Orange County Register May 28, 1997: "Zero tolerance's long arm reaches Santa Ana student"
- Denver Post Nov. 19 1997: "6 Year Old Busted For Candy"
- Idaho Press-Tribune Oct. 25 1996: "Knife in lunch box gets 11-year-old girl suspended, arrested"
- Philadelphia Daily News Nov. 7 1997: "Student suspended for giving coughdrop"
- Spokane Spokesman-Review March 5 1997: "8-year-old expelled because of knife on grandpa's watch"
- Rome, New York Daily Sentinel Nov. 23 1996: "`Zero tolerance' excesses"
- National Briefs
- Education department clears young kisser
- Status of state "zero-tolerance" weapons in schools laws (partly passed in response to federal mandate)
- Written by Kelli Gary for class project "Responding to Current Issues in Education": "The Kissing Game"
- Mountlake Terrace High School Hawkeye Feb. 1997: "Suspending innocence"
- ?? Nov. 21 1996: "Schools and rules"
- [Jokes on Charlotte Kirk, Ryan Hudson cases]
- Can you tolerate zero-tolerance?
- Zero tolerance (drug prohibition) is a bad idea in schools.
- Student Suspended for bringing Knife to Cut Birthday Brownies
- Rantings of the Web's First Right Wing Feline!!! (includes Charlotte Kirk case among subjects of rants...)
unprocessed potential links
(Note that I do not intend to include links to any pieces in which media
accounts of these school cases have been used merely as convenient hooks for
an author to launch into a tangential tirade promoting their favorite
ideology -- without there being any real focus on the children involved, or
the principles that these cases raise.)
Maintainer of this Web page:
Go to politics index page.