Zero Tolerance for Weapons in Schools – Lessons Learned

Zero Tolerance for Weapons in Schools – Lessons Learned


Zero tolerance – it’s the buzzword for schools.  Zero tolerance for drugs.  Zero tolerance for bullying.  Zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Zero tolerance for weapons.  But is zero tolerance a good idea?  Does it work?  Research findings suggest that after a generation of zero tolerance for weapons, there is “no real benefit and significant adverse effects.”

When Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994, they required that states  who wanted to qualify for federal education funds had to pass a law requiring school districts to expel, for at least a year, any student who brought a weapon to school.  Unfortunately, school officials became over-zealous and afraid of losing funding, and so zero tolerance expanded to include much more than real weapons.

We’ve heard some ridiculous stories.  Ridiculous for us, but frightening and life-changing for some innocent children.  The following are only a few of the stories out there of zero tolerance run amuck!

A 7-year old boy in Baltimore was suspended from school for nibbling his breakfast pastry into what he thought was a mountain. Apparently,  school officials had a more sinister frame of mind because they thought the pastry shape was more like a gun.

In Scottsdale, Arizona, an 8-year-old student drew pictures of his ideas for a Halloween costume. Unfortunately for him, the costumes he liked were soldiers, ninjas and a laser gun-carrying Star Wars character.  The school threatened him with suspension.  Suspension for drawing Halloween costumes!

Even sillier is the case of a 5-year old kindergartener in Pennsylvania who was playing with a Hello Kitty “bubble gun” that hk-bubble-gunblows bubbles.  She was given a 10-day suspension for making a “terroristic threat” when she told her friends, “I’ll shoot you, you shoot me, and we’ll all play together.”  Note the word “play.”  She was simply a little girl enjoying blowing bubbles with her friends.

In Rhode Island, a 12-year old boy had a keychain with a small plastic gun in his backpack.  The keychain was one that he got for 25 tickets at an arcade – and you know how flimsy that would be. The whole thing was only slightly larger than a quarter.  The keychain fell out of his backpack, a classmate picked it up, a teacher confiscated it, and the boy was suspended.

And the idiocy continues.  In Suffolk, Virginia, a 7-year old student was playing a game with another student.  The teacher noticed that he was holding his pencil like a gun and pretending to shoot.  Both children were suspended for two days.

Are teachers afraid to simply say, “Stop that, guys.  That kind of play is not appropriate for school.”  Issue ended.  I consider those suspensions and “terrorist” labels are pretty significant “adverse effects” of zero tolerance.

There’s a growing consensus that the most effective schools reinforce positive behavior and respond to behavioral problems on a case-by-case basis in ways that suit the individual’s circumstances and needs.  That implies a return to discretion, but with some structure and guidance.  There’s still not much research to support this approach, but a recent study showed that positive behavioral support in the classroom is associated with greater order and discipline, fairness and productive student-teacher relationships, while exclusionary disciplinary strategies (i.e., out-of-school suspension and expulsion) are associated with more disorder overall.

Certain facts are clear:  zero tolerance does not make schools more orderly or safe – in fact the opposite may be true.  And policies that push students out of school can have life-long negative effects . . . .

“A return to discretion.”  What a lovely thought.

Lessons learned after a generation of zero tolerance?  Zero tolerance sounds great, but when the definition is expanded to include everyday  things – things that could not be used as a weapon (a piece of bread, a bubble machine) by a child who had no intent whatsoever of harming anyone else, then it causes great harm to innocent children.  My heart breaks for children who have been labeled so cruelly by frightened adults who should know better.  It’s time for schools to kick zero tolerance out and invite common sense back in.

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  • GWB says:

    That implies a return to discretion….

    That would imply a return to responsibility for your actions, and that’s one thing these administrators just can’t have. It might involve firing someone or being fired yourself.

    It’s nice to see someone quantifying this for the “empirical, reality-based” community. Not that it will do any good.

  • hockeydad says:

    Nice article and while it’s great to say we should use more common sense, remember that these policies are in place mainly due to lack of common sense from not just the school’s personnel but parents. It’s not always just the administration.

    I live in a rural county; schools still close for fair day. It is one of the most conservative counties in the area. This area still made national headlines as a young boy was suspended for 10 days for bring a toy gun to school. There were all kinds of posts, blogs etc. screaming and calling for the principle’s head. Yet none of those people took the time to read the county handbook for the schools. Which stated a zero tolerance policy on guns, toy or otherwise. The book didn’t give leeway to the administrator of the school and parents are to protest to the school board for a reduced sentence. Which they did and the board said 1 day. Case closed.
    Why such a policy? Because today there are air guns that shoot plastic pellets that can injure and other “toys” which can do harm and instead of the teachers needing to be up on the latest list of toy vs. real, it’s easier to have a standing policy. While some say that’s stupid and that teachers should be allowed to “think”, what happens when one teacher is stricter than another? One child is punished while another is not…next thing we know we have a blog complaining about how unfair it is to Johnny that he got in trouble when Billy didn’t. Then common sense goes out the window and along come law suits. Money is wasted fighting in court and at the end of the day the children…all of them lose out as there is less to spend on school items.

    I don’t want people to think I’m completely fine with the madness of zero tolerance, had to deal with it once for my son back when he attended public school, but one must understand why and how things get to this state before just complaining.
    As of today the county still has a zero tolerance on toy/real guns. Our school board is an elected group and while the outside world screamed, people in this area were fine with how the system worked. It’s what they voted for and seem to be happy with, as the policy has not been changed.
    Zero tolerance isn’t there to “hurt” anyone. It’s there for protection for the teachers and administrators who have to enforce these policies. Many of these came about because most parents don’t believe “my little Johnny” could do anything wrong or the teacher’s just pick on him/her. So we end up with policies that take the thinking out of people’s hand and provides them protection should they make a choice that some parent doesn’t like. If parents don’t like the policies they have the right to address the school board, fight to get someone else elected or run themselves.
    I also believe that if parents were more reasonable when their children do get into trouble these things wouldn’t have come about to start with. When my children were in the public schools here we dealt with both teachers that called us in to solve an issue and those who just used the rule book. The decision on which way it went usually was based on who all was involved. If it was a group where someone might complain about “fair” treatment they went by the book. If the teachers knew the parents and felt it could be resolved without bring in the administration it was done that way. Some teachers never go that way for fear of not being consistent and getting into trouble.

    Reasonable policies require reasonable people on both sides.

  • GWB says:

    Zero tolerance isn’t there to “hurt” anyone. It’s there for protection for the teachers and administrators who have to enforce these policies.

    Exactly. Heaven forfend that they have to defend their decisions based on reason and such.

    Many of these came about because most parents don’t believe “my little Johnny” could do anything wrong or the teacher’s just pick on him/her. So we end up with policies that take the thinking out of people’s h[ea]d and provides them protection should they make a choice that some parent doesn’t like.

    Exactly. But let’s rephrase that:

    Many of these came about because most parents won’t take responsibility for their own child’s actions.

    See the fundamental problem here? There’s a growing consistency. It has to be someone else’s fault. *I* didn’t write the rules. *I* am not the parent with a problem child. Don’t look at me, *I* didn’t do it!

  • GWB says:

    Reasonable policies require reasonable people on both sides.

    I forgot this piece. This is the biggest problem in all of society today. There is no longer an understanding of what a “reasonable person” is.

    Wich brings us back to John Adams:

    Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

  • GWB says:

    One more point I’ll make. And I think it’s a vital one to make.

    Zero Tolerance also punishes all people for the actions of a few, treating everyone as guilty until proven innocent.

    This is fundamentally at odds with our concept of a free society. When I was a child I carried a penknife to school many days. I never used it to play mumblypeg or to fight anyone or to deface school property. Now, I would be expelled for carrying it.

  • Melanie says:

    Hockeydad – zero tolerance should not include items that could not be used to hurt anyone – pastries, bubble machines, fingers, pencils. While fingers and pencils “could” be used to hurt someone, unless someone can prove that was the child’s intent, then are we going to have to watch every child’s fingers and pencils 24/7 to make sure they don’t use them for possible terrorist actions? I can understand toy guns – because they DO look realistic sometimes. But the others – no way.

    • GWB says:

      And, I presume by “toy guns” you mean something that approximates the actual size and look of a real weapon, not a 2″ high army man figurine or the weapon of a GI Joe action figure.

  • Dejah Thoris says:

    Zero tolerance means “I am giving all my power to a piece of paper so that I don’t have to burden myself with thinking.” When people decide that they are going to make a policy that takes away their motive to think, reason, and decide what is right and wrong, then those people have given up the right to be grown ups and should have all of their decision making powers taken from them.

    Grown ups are the ones who decide and judge, that is why we grow up. And most everyone involved in making these decisions is so facking caught up in being right and have decided that they will ignore the intent of what actually took place. Did the little boy mean to harm anyone when he took the gun to school? Or maybe we can just tell him he can’t bring it and let his parents know what happened.

    I hope the zombie apocalypse gets here soon to wipe the scourge of the zero tolerance policy lovers from the planet.

    • GWB says:

      You know, I don’t mind a rule that is clear and firm and unequivocal. That’s the rule of law, instead of the rule of man. But to write it in such a way that taking away bubble launchers is justified under “no firearms” policies shows a lack of adult reason that should be an immediate disqualification for being in loco parentis.

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