Zero tolerance laws in which even harmless misbehavior can result in automatic discipline started to gain popularity in the mid-1990s and picked up momentum with the Columbine school shooting in 1999, when two students killed 12 students and a teacher. The laws gained notoriety for the arbitrary manner in which they were applied, leading to students being suspended or disciplined for having nail clippers or plastic knives in their lunch.
For a while little attention was paid to them. But now the Newtown, Conn., massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators has hypersensitive school officials returning to zero tolerance policies to ward off any perceived threat or hint of violent behavior.
In Maryland, two 6-year-old boys were suspended, but later reinstated, after using their hands as guns on the school playground. A kindergarten girl gets a 10-day suspension for telling her friends she would shoot them with her Hello Kitty bubble-making toy; she also has to undergo a psychological evaluation.
A 5-year-old boy playing with Legos uses them to make a gun and gets suspended for pointing it at other students. In decades past, their conduct would have been dismissed as normal childs play, but not any more.
The superintendent at the girls school said it would be irresponsible and negligent of school officials to dismiss or overlook an incident that results in any member of our school community feeling unsafe or threatened. Policies that mete out automatic punishments also shield administrators from claims of favoritism or preferential treatment.
Zero tolerance polices leave little room for adult judgment or discretion based on circumstances. A one-size-fits-all approach invokes an automatic discipline that fails to consider the severity or nature of the threat, real or imagined.
A 2006 study by the American Psychological Association determined that zero tolerance policies did not improve school security. Mark Terry, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, told the Associated Press that most principals are not big supporters of zero tolerance policies.
I would hope that principals would, number one, use discretion and common sense and if you do make a mistake, apologize, he said.
The sudden re-emergence of zero tolerance policies could be a temporary reaction that will probably fade again with time.
In the meantime, school officials need to take a moment to consider individual circumstances and the seriousness of the threat posed by children whose actions more suitably call for guidance rather than indiscriminate punishment.