By Rosa Conrad
Since zero tolerance policy was implemented in public schools, there has been increasing involvement of law enforcement in the disciplining of students. Students have been handcuffed and arrested reasons like writing on a classroom desk with a dry erase marker, as students are being disciplined under school zero tolerance policies.
The grounds for discipline under zero tolerance policies can range from having a weapon to being in possession of drugs. Yet these policies do not provide an explanation on how discipline can be applied to different situations, leaving much of it to the discretion of school principals and administrators. School administration can recommend expulsion if the rules are violated when students walk to and from school, and at school events. In one case, school administrators enforced zero tolerance policy on a high school student who went to a house party to give a friend a ride home because she had been drinking. This student was suspended from playing five volleyball games and demoted from her position as volleyball team captain. Although the police made it known that the student had not been drinking, school administrators still punished her for being at the party.
Why do school administrators have the authority to extend zero tolerance policies off school grounds? Should not the actions taken by law enforcement against the students involved be sufficient? As parents, what rights do they have in contesting the actions taken? The student’s family filed a lawsuit against the school district, but a judge ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction. This story exemplifies how zero tolerance policies give school administrators the right to exercise discretionary power and how it can negatively affect students.
Zero tolerance policies mean that no student is safe from being affected by them. The cases I discussed are just a few examples that demonstrate perhaps it is time for school districts, superintendents, school board members, principals, and teachers to consider the consequences of enforcing these policies.
Schools focus on being absent and how missing one day of school can set a student back, but this is not being considered when suspension is assigned to students for writing on the desk with a dry erase marker, helping a friend, and having a water balloon fight. School administration and staff should consider alternatives to assure a safe learning environment where every student heading to school can feel secure. Enforcement of zero tolerance policies and the ability to apply it with broad discretion has negatively impacted students.
The White House held a conference this past summer to address how schools are approaching discipline. It was great to see that the White House has acknowledged the issue and has taken steps to assist schools in changing how they are disciplining students. Although this is in the right direction, it is not just up to school administrators to reexamine zero tolerance policies, but parents, teachers, school counselors, and other school staff as well who see what is happening daily at school. By not including them, we may risk repeating mistakes made in designing and enforcing school policies such as zero tolerance.