Zero Tolerance and Zero Patience: Forgetting Forgiveness with Our Nation’s Youth

 By Jeremy Waller[1]



         The following paper outlines the history of Zero Tolerance policy and legislation within school systems through the United States.  Tracing it back to its roots in drug interdiction policy, the paper lays a historical framework that shows Zero Tolerance to be strongly influenced by policy designed to combat hardened criminals involved in the drug war.   This same unforgiving system has been used over the last two to three decades under the guise of keeping our children safe and improving their learning atmosphere.  With a combination of research and real world examples, this paper reveals the real effects of Zero Tolerance policy and legislation on our country’s youth and their education.  Far from the intended goals laid out by proponents and legislators, Zero Tolerance in the school system actually creates a less productive education environment, rife with racism, unfair treatment, and a general lack of forgiveness that leaves our youth population stranded in an environment that was originally designed to protect, nurture, and facilitate educational growth within them.  

“Boys will be boys.”




There was a time when youth were expected to be a little rambunctious.  Their inattentive nature and their dislike of idle activity was a famed thing of countless books and radio and TV shows.  They got dirty.  They cursed from time to time.  And they even fought every once in a while.  Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain’s infamous boyhood character, made tribute to this adage, that youth were youth because they still had a lot to discover in life and that they were not yet ready for their roles in adult society.  These tales of youth and their love of adventure and dislike of the school house were well known, and their stubbornness was seen in an almost playful light.  

Somewhere in society this began to take a turn.  What was once stubbornness and a characteristic of youth was now the early signs of trouble and violence.  Small tragic events were taken as the norm, and parents and legislatures began to take swift action to do what they thought was necessary to protect their children.  All around the country, school districts began enacting zero tolerance policies.  The basis of these policies was that any infraction involving a weapon, violence, gang activity, or drug use, would be treated with unilateral punishment in an effort to maintain a safe and positive learning environment.  In most cases, this meant expulsion of the youth or at the very least, suspension for a lengthy period and a mandatory disciplinary hearing.

Over time, empirical research and dedicated journalism have revealed that these zero tolerance policies, while designed to protect our children and improve their learning environment, might actually have negative effects on them.  This paper will outline the history of zero tolerance policies within our school system, as well as highlight the intended and unintended consequences of such policies on our youth and their education. 

Origins of Zero Tolerance

For the past three decades, zero tolerance legislation has been at the forefront of education disciplinary action within our nation’s school systems.  There has been no formal definition of this term (APA Task Force, 2006).  Instead, its meaning and implications have been molded and modified over its years of practice, growing and changing into a massive bit of legislation and policy with far reaching consequence.  A quick Google dictionary search returned the definition, “Refusal to accept antisocial behavior, typically by strict and uncompromising application of the law” (Google, 2011).  While operating under varying degrees of severity, these policies have formed the entire scope of law enforcement action and in many ways have completely changed the way educators deal with school violence and other disciplinary action.

Zero Tolerance policies stem from a multitude of sources, going as far back as the 1970s with drug interdiction efforts (Berke, 1998).  During that time, it was law enforcement policy to confiscate vehicles of any type that contained any amount of drugs, no matter the amount.  These efforts helped coin the phrase 'zero tolerance' (Koselke, 2010).  These policies were further expanded into the 1980s with the introduction of the ‘drug war’ (Skiba, 2000).  A heavy bit of influence can also be attributed to policing styles in New York City modeled after the research of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling for their Broken Windows Theory (Punch, 2007).  The basis of the theory is that allowing minor infractions to go unpunished, in this case dealing with school violence or drugs, will lead to larger problems within the population.  Therefore, addressing minor issues with swift punishment and no leniency will prevent further infractions through a combination of deterrence and incapacitation. 

One glaring issue that becomes apparent upon viewing the source of zero tolerance legislation is that unlike the majority of criminal theory and drug enforcement, the schools are dealing with a youth population – not street hardened criminals incapable of learning or lesson.  The whole institution of education assumes that children's brains are malleable objects capable of positive growth, and the enforcement of zero tolerance policies in light of this only seems backwards.  What if the education system taught with the same standards that it punished, allowing children zero tolerance for mistakes in the classroom? 

The earliest examples of zero tolerance legislation within the school system emerged in 1989, with California, New York, and Kentucky adopting zero tolerance fueled policy that required expulsion for any activity related to gang involvement, drugs, or violence (Skiba, 2000).  These policies were attractive because they looked to be tough on crime and gangs, and also appeared to be intended for the protection of our youth.  Within four years, the policies extended throughout much of the United States, with amendments added to blanket over a variety of disruptive behaviors including alcohol and tobacco use (Skiba, 2000).

On January 25, 1994, the Improving America's School act was signed into law, aiming to positively affect the education process, increase the effectiveness of various programs, and strengthen safety.  One particularly pertinent aspect of this act was the call for drug and violence free campuses by the year 2000 (Improving America’s School Act, 1994; Koselke, 2010).  This goal was given means with the passage of The Gun Free School Act later that year on October 20, 1994, placing zero tolerance policy center stage at the federal level.  Signed into law by then President Bill Clinton, the act mandated that any institution receiving federal funds must adopt policy to expel any student bringing a firearm onto school grounds for an entire calendar year (Dunn, 2002; The Gun Free School Act, 1994).  With funding being a limited source for all school systems, this meant a nearly complete acceptance of the Gun Free School Act, and with it, zero tolerance policy.

From its beginning, it is not hard to see where zero tolerance errors.  For example, the main goal set by the Improving America's School act was “drug and violence free campuses by the year 2000.”  It does not take empirical research to deem this a fallacious goal, as there will always be some violence and some drug use on campuses no matter what the interdiction.  As it was pointed out, this tendency toward impossible goals is very reminiscent of the drug war which was begun in the early 1980s and continues today.  It seeks to rid the streets of its drug problem almost completely, a goal which is as grandiose as it is absolutely improbable.

Further, it seems illogical to require of our youth what our own society cannot accomplish.  No matter the environment, be it any adult community or police department itself, there always exists some drug use or violence in one form or the other.  Police departments are constantly dealing with an internal drug problem, attributing officer drug use to job stress and temptation, and often allowing some leniency.  Officers caught testing positive for drug use often receive medical treatment for the addiction, and are often allowed to keep their jobs following a short suspension.  In one instance in 1999, 75 Boston police officers failed a drug screening, and many of those same officers failed subsequent screening tests.  Only after they failed the second test were they let go (Smalley, 2006).  This is an example where people tasked with enforcing the law on the population had not been following it themselves.  If we cannot expect perfection from even law enforcement officers, certainly it is not fair to expect the same from our youth population.

Perhaps no date could be more important to the history of zero tolerance policy than April 20, 1999.  The events of that date would later come to be known simply as Columbine, after the town in Colorado where the events took place.  Two high school seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, opened fire on their classmates in a highly orchestrated attack that left more than 15 people dead and several more injured.  The two seniors were reportedly often in trouble at school, and both were associated with several incidents that involved law enforcement such as attempted tool theft and maintaining a web page with violent material related to their future plans.  No one took these plans seriously, and each brush with the law was met with little punishment.  Eric Harris even wrote in his journal that he faked empathy to receive leniency from punishment (Wikipedia, 2011;, 2011).  The overall scope of this event only further confirmed what school officials already knew, that violence was on the rise and the only way to curb it was through tough enforcement and little leniency (Koselke, 2010).  Zero tolerance legislation provided the perfect avenue with which to accomplish this.

What was once only intended for firearm regulation, created by the Gun Free School Act of 1994, became applicable to all sorts of weapons and actions, from knives and brass knuckles to drug paraphernalia and alcohol.  Each district took it upon itself to interpret the federal standards behind the zero tolerance legislation, and many choose to increase applicable offenses to include much more than only weapons.  Schools began expelling and suspending youth for a multitude of delinquent acts including fighting, making threats, use of drugs and alcohol, and even cursing (Bursuk & Murphy, 1999; Kumar, 1999; Nancrede, 1998; Petrillo, 1997).  Rare and random events such as Columbine, and later a shooting taking place on the campus of Virginia Tech, acted as fuel to the fire for the growing support and acceptance of these policies (Good, 2008).  Before long, the sweeping legislation engulfed school systems policy all across the nation, tying school official’s hands and forcing them to make strict, no-nonsense decisions regarding disciplinary action.

Zero tolerance policies fail to note one striking point – that violence, in all its terrible forms, is nothing new.  No matter what the practice of riding it from our streets has been throughout history, it has always remained.  But unlike the picture painted by media and many school officials, this violence is not out of control or increasing with each year.  Despite recent efforts of media and parent associations to tout the dangers of violence in video games and movies and their effect on youth in the last few decades, rates of violence have remained constant throughout time, and some studies have shown it might even be decreasing (DeVoe et al., 2004; National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). 

History has often shown us that our youth are in danger most often from the outside world, not from themselves.  The deadliest massacre to date on U.S. School grounds was the Bath School massacre, taking place in Michigan on May 18, 1927.  Over 45 people were killed and more than 50 injured when a former school board member by the name of Andrew Kehoe detonated a series of bombs on school grounds.  The effort took months of planning, and Kehoe had himself hidden much of the explosives within the school basement long before the actual attack (Bernstein, 2009).  Following the initial explosion, Kehoe drove his car up to the school’s front entrance where the superintendent stood with a crowd of people that had collected there.  He then detonated a second set of explosives that lay within his car, sending shrapnel and other debris into the crowd and killing several others, including the superintendent.  This event serves an important lesson, that more often than not our children are not the violence endangering our youth.  More often than not, it is the parents and other adults themselves.

Intended Consequences

         There are many intended goals of zero tolerance legislation.  Many of these goals have positive ends in mind, and were enacted with the thought of protecting our youth and preserving an active educational environment.  Some of the outlined intentions of zero tolerance legislation include: the prevention of serious school violence, the creation of a consistent and unilateral discipline code that is indifferent to race or discrimination, the fostering of a positive learning environment by removing those that disrupt it, and the lowering of delinquency rates within schools due to the deterrent effect of its harsh and certain punishments (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2006).  While these goals certainly possess good intentions, zero tolerance proponents have done little to ensure that their policies actually accomplish what they hope. 

Castella (2001) notes that these policy goals were partly shaped by the Safe School Study conducted by the U.S. Congress in 1977.  In the study, Congress found that crime and violence within the school system was more prevalent than originally thought.  It found crime and violence rates within schools to largely be the result of a few key issues.  First, the communities surrounding school grounds were responsible for a large amount of crime dispersion.  In other words, communities with high crime rates saw this crime bleed into the schools located in the same area.  Second, large school populations resulted in larger classroom sizes and less supervision by school staff.  Third, conflicting discipline polices with varying degrees of severity and enforcement increased violence in a school setting.  And lastly, the Safe School Study found a large amount of discrimination in the way many schools enforced their rules and meted out discipline, forcing many to believe that the school system was unfair (Nelson, 2007).

         Whether zero tolerance legislation effectively accomplishes these goals is up for constant debate.  As mentioned earlier, zero tolerance proponents offer little evidence to refute any criticism.  Due to the disagreement, the American Psychological Association formed a task force to review both sides of the discussion and make overall commentary about the impact of zero tolerance policies.  In the study, the APA task force used the goals outlined above as a frame with which to evaluate the policy’s effectiveness within our school system.  If its goals were accomplished, zero tolerance policies could largely be deemed a success.  If, however, it was not successful at these basic goals then it would encourage the search for alternatives to these policies that might better address zero tolerance policies’ intended purpose (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2006).

The results found by the APA task force are far from surprising.  Zero tolerance policies largely failed in each of its main goals.  With regards to the prevention of future school violence, the APA cited an inherent distortion of the facts surrounding school violence by zero tolerance supporters.  The media and school boards would like to give the impression that school violence has been steadily on the rise, culminating to a deadly level.  This is used as justification for the recent trend towards utilitarian strict punishment and context free discipline.  However, research consistently shows that youth violence, in particular the deadly kind such as that of ‘Columbine,’ remains a small percentage of school infractions (Heaviside, Rowand, Williams, and Farris, 1998).  And while school boards are hopeful that zero tolerance policies will have positive effects within their institutions, recent research has shown little effect by them.  Despite the no-nonsense unilateral policies, school violence rates remain steadily at the same low levels that existed in the past (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).  Research consistently shows that youth violence, in particular the deadly kind such as that of ‘Columbine,’ remains a small percentage of school infractions (Heaviside, Rowand, Williams, and Farris, 1998). 

         As to discipline being more consistent under zero tolerance policy, the APA also disagrees.  Citing the multitude of differences between state-by-state and county-by-county interpretation of zero tolerance legislation, the APA concludes that discipline under zero tolerance policies is no more consistent than earlier discipline policy.  The task force also claimed that current disciplinary policies suffer from the same issues that the old policies had, including differences in staff procedure and beliefs and student behavior.  Proof of existing inconsistencies can be seen in the varying degrees with which school districts enforce suspension and expulsion, and with which offenses qualify as zero tolerance offenses (Bursuk & Murphy, 1999; Kumar, 1999; Nancrede, 1998; Petrillo, 1997).   Because zero tolerance stems from a multitude of sources, both at the national and state level, there is no set standard by which all schools enforce its code.  This lack of standardization results in inconsistent enforcement, even amongst a supposedly consistent policy.  Skiba (2000) makes this decidedly clear in his article entitled, “Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence.”  In it he states, “There is still considerable variation in local definition of zero tolerance: while some districts adhere to a zero tolerance philosophy of punishing both major and minor disruptions relatively equally, others have begun to define zero tolerance as a graduated system, with severity of consequence scaled in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.”  It is easy to see how this lack of clear definition presents just as much confusion as it clears up.

         Expelling and suspending disruptive youth to maintain an effective learning environment sounds logical.  By removing youth that would pose as distractions and threats to good students, the environment should better be able to foster learning.  However, the APA task force findings conflict with this.  According to their study, school’s with high suspension and expulsion rates actually show lower satisfaction with the education environment among the student population.  Additionally, school’s with high expulsion and suspension rates are found to focus more of their attention and time strictly on enforcing school rules and policy and less on other important aspects of the school atmosphere (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2006).  The fact remains, schools are not simply daycare supervision facilities, tasked with merely maintaining order with youth until their parents return home.  Unlike state institutions, school’s main purpose is education.  Instead, due to zero tolerance’s strict policies, staff remain so concerned with compliance that they begin to ignore that environment in trying to protect it.

         Finally, the deterrent aspect of zero tolerance, so beloved by our criminal justice system and society, is also found to be largely ineffective.  Just like the average criminal spending time in an institution, there is a strong relationship between the amount of time a student spends in punishment and the likelihood of being punished again for future action (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2006).  This would mean that regardless of its intentions, the use of zero tolerance polices hardly deter crime.  Just like deterrence within our prison system, the strict punishment only serves to create tougher criminals. After decades of continuing the use of deterrence despite constant research that points to its ineffectiveness, it is of no surprise that those at the head of discipline policy would continue its use within our school system.  Like a proud person unwilling to admit their fault, the justice system just won’t admit that people do not learn to follow rules through blind deterrence.

Unintended Consequences

After having listed the intended consequences of zero tolerance policies, this paper would be lacking if the opposite were not given coverage.  While zero tolerance policies have been ineffective at accomplishing their intended goals, they have been extremely effective at causing other less intended effects.  It is well known that every action carries with it a reaction, and this remains true with any policy.  Legislatures and school officials must bear in mind not only their goals in adopting new policy, but also considering the entire range of implications that are sure to come along with it.

These unintended consequences are far greater than its proponents would like to admit.  From net widening to racism, to even lower school performance, zero tolerance policies cause severe damage to our school system and its population.   To simply ignore a failed policy is a terrible action, but to ignore a failed policy that actually worsens what it intends to improve is far less forgivable.

Perhaps the worst consequence of enacting zero tolerance policies is the subsequent net widening that occurs as a result.  Strict and context free adjudication of students for incidents involving any kind of violence, drugs or weapons results in decreased learning and mass suspensions of students who otherwise would have been left alone (Rojas, 2011).  The news is filled with hundreds of stories of expelled youth who have done little wrong and yet find themselves before disciplinary boards having to explain their actions.  One such case involved a six year old named Zachary, in Delaware's Christina District.  Zachery had just received a multi-tool as a part of his cub scouts acceptance.  The tool included a fork, a spoon, and a knife.  Being so excited at having received it, Zachary brought it to school with intent to use it during lunch time... to eat his lunch.  Instead, school officials suspended Zachary citing the school’s policy to expel students holding weapons “regardless of their intent” (Urbina, 2009).  This story perfectly brings to light one of zero tolerances biggest problems: its strict no discretion clause does not allow for reason and logic, and instead favors blanket punishment of undeserving youth.

There are plenty of other examples in the news, everyone just as ridiculous and underserved:

·         In a middle school outside of Dallas, TX, eleven teen girls were expelled for mixing a small amount of alcohol with soda.  Some of the girls were even sent to a boot camp for five months as part of their punishment for the offense (Cauchon, 1999).  After many hired lawyers and had the rulings reversed, it left many wondering just what the purpose of extreme school discipline was. 

·         Yet another example involves a Virginia student who used an empty pen casing and plastic pellets to shoot a few of his classmates during a lunch period.  The student was expelled from school and charged with misdemeanor assault by the sheriff’s department in Virginia.  During the hearing case, one official stated clearly that he didn’t feel comfortable expelling the student for the act (Sieff, 2011). 

Each of these news stories illustrates how easily zero tolerance policies distort reality and turn an otherwise normal childhood error into criminal action.  The school takes kids who otherwise are good students and suspends or expels them for what often is a minor infraction, an accident, or just a small mistake.  Perhaps there is hope, however.  After recognizing issues with zero tolerance policies and its lack of discretion, the state of Baltimore began limiting the types of offenses that are applicable for suspension.  This has decreased their suspension numbers from 26,000 to just 10,000 and increased their graduation percentage by nearly 20%.  That 20% consists of students whom zero tolerance policies could very well have eliminated from the system all together (Rojas, 2011).  Similarly, Milwaukee’s superintendent has encouraged school staff to take care when using disciplinary action.  This followed after a report indicated that nearly 40 percent of ninth graders in the Milwaukee school district had been suspended during the past year (Rojas, 2011).

Further, the APA found that zero tolerance policies, like many of the legal systems present in America, are conducted with a strong racial bias (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2006).  Originally, supporters of zero tolerance policies felt that its context free enforcement would create a system that ignored race, and thus made it more attractive to school officials (Casella, 2003).  However, research shows that the opposite is true, reporting children of color are consistently on the tough end of zero tolerance punishments more than their majority raced counterparts (Skiba et al., 2002, Wu et al, 1982).  For example, one article in the Los Angeles Times reported that during the 2010 school year, several of Los Angeles’ school districts reported disproportionate suspension rates of black students.  One of the school systems, LA Unified, reported a district wide suspension rate of 34% for black students, with only 11% for Hispanic students and 5% for Caucasians.  Considering the racial make-up of the district is made up of only 10% African Americans, with Latinos encompassing nearly 74% of the population and whites only 9%, this figure is eye-opening (Rojas, 2011).

Lastly, the APA reports that zero tolerance policies might actually harm the learning environment (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2006).  In recent studies, a negative relationship has been found between suspension and expulsion rates and school achievement rates (J.E. Davis & Jordan, 1994; Raffaele-Mendez, 2003; Skiba & Rausch, 2006).  Essentially, as suspension rates go up, school’s academic performance goes down, even after controlling for demographic issues such as race and income.  While this by no means proves expulsion to be the root cause of the lack of performance, it does further point to negative implications of zero tolerance policies (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2006)




Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents."

George Bernard Shaw


Perhaps zero tolerance policy’s biggest goal is the prevention of shootings such as that of Columbine and Virginia Tech.  But this goal ignores the fact that these acts of violence are largely unpredictable by nature.  An important logical gap in the reasoning fueling zero tolerance proponents lies in their use of hindsight for justification.  Psychologists and law enforcement officials often warn the public to be on the lookout for ‘red flags’ or signs of coming violence.  With effective reporting of these red flags, officials claim that violence can be prevented or at the very least lessoned.  Some of the red flags law enforcement and psychologists mention include depression, anger, gang or delinquent subculture fascination, a lack of order and discipline, pressure to succeed academically, and a fear of rejection and failure (McIntyre, 2011;, 2011).  School discipline problems are often associated with these red flags, and that they be taken seriously is a criterion of zero tolerance policy.  At a recent forum related to school violence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a psychologist warned students to be on the lookout for signs of violence, stating, “Recognize if you see someone act angrily, like the killers from Virginia Tech or Columbine…”  The psychologist went on to recommend that students also be weary of signs of depression, another of the aforementioned red flags (Maslow, 2011).

While it is certainly true that perpetrators of violence often show signs that qualify as red flags – so too do a majority of the rest of the student population.  Certainly a large proportion of students at any institution across America experience a multitude of these flags, and their assessment is up to the individual context of the situation and the individual.  A student being perhaps depressed and seeking kinship within a delinquent subculture hardly guarantees that that youth will one day become a school shooter.  Myrna Shure, developer of the ICSP program for use with children by families and schools, admits that there is no direct causal link between any of these behaviors and direct school violence (, 2011).  Due to human behavior’s complex nature, the idea that relatively normal behavior for a delinquent youth might be able to accurately predict future violence within the school system is a farce – and yet this farce is largely the basis behind suspending and expelling so many of our youth who fit zero tolerance criteria.

         The criminal justice system is a giant machine of tradition.  It prides itself on its foundations.  But just like the crumbling brick and sagging structure of an old building, sometimes it is better to abandon the whole thing and start anew.  Our justice system, however, refuses to admit its failures.  And so it continues on without concern, replacing beams here and there and perhaps putting on a new coat of paint.  While all the while, rot hides beneath.   There is perhaps no more telling example of the school systems failure than the quote by George Bernard Shaw with which this section opens.  Stated nearly a century ago, it cannot be more sad and true that our schools and instructors today still serve merely as “prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents.”

         A famous phrase exists related to the fear of crime that states that we all risk something in stepping outside our door every morning so that we might enjoy our freedoms and live our lives.  We would like to think that simply keeping our children home from school would ensure their protection, but even that is a false hope.  With domestic violence, abuse, and neglect existing in neighborhoods all over the United States, our youth are hardly even safe at home.  But taking extreme measures with such harsh unintended consequences, no matter the good intentions of the initial actions, simply cannot be accepted.  Safety is important with our youth, but trading the quality of their education and treatment for a mere illusion of safety is hardly a deal worth taking.  The media needs to continue to look critically at zero tolerance policies within our school system in an effort to reverse the hold that they have taken over our education system.   


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[1] The author is a second year graduate student in the Department of Criminal Justice at UNLV.  This is a revised version of a paper for a graduate seminar on juvenile justice