Zero Tolerance

I got this from someone I know who reads here but doesn’t comment much. They wanted our view on this.

We’ve all heard of “zero tolerance” and I think we’ve discussed it here before.  I think at this point, most people think it’s a disaster waiting to happen.  This hit home for me recently.

Let’s start with a little background.  A boy I know – let’s call him Paul – is a truly amazing kid.  I noticed he was exceptionally smart by the time he was 14 months old, effortlessly assembling complex puzzles meant for 3+-year-olds, etc.  When he was 5, I overheard him fluently reading “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (with the correct rhythm, intonation, etc.) and when I said something about it, he said “I love poetry, because I can illustrate it.”  From that time on, every time I heard him speak, it sounded like he was reciting from a dictionary.  I am not even kidding.

Not surprisingly, Paul stood out a bit in the crowd, so his mom took great pains to help him get lots of social stimulation and work on making friends.  He joined the Cub Scouts and then Boy Scouts, and by middle school had achieved an exceptional rank for his age.  He was also active in church, became a member in his own right, and still plays in the bell choir every Sunday.  He is still “nerdy,” but he has good friends, and as far as I know, he hasn’t tended to make enemies.

There’s no point talking about his impeccable academic record, but besides that, he’s had excellent school attendance and never had a discipline problem at school.  The only reason his principal knew him was because he was the most exceptional student they had academically, and had been accepted into a highly competitive and challenging high school program.  Note that this is not a “spoiled rich brat” situation; his parents are modest, middle-class folks and he goes to public school in a relatively poor school system.

A couple of weeks ago, Paul was in science class working on his science project.  A classmate tossed something at him and he tossed it back.  Then the classmate came and busted up Paul’s science project.  Paul pushed back physically.  In his hand was a 5” long, thin, soft piece of rubber which he had been working with, and with which the other boy was “hit.”  Paul left the fight with damaged glasses and a black eye.  The other boy was not visibly harmed.  Both boys were sent to the principal.

The principal took the boys’ statements (the teacher was not a witness, as she had not been watching).  Based on the boys’ statements, the principal determined a “weapon” had been used.  The “zero tolerance” weapons policy required a 10-day suspension and referral for an expulsion hearing.  The other boy was not threatened with expulsion, since a “fist” is not considered a weapon.

So at the hearing, Paul’s dad demonstrated how the piece of rubber could not have been a weapon under any circumstance.  Paul’s mom gave a statement and also read letters from past teachers, etc., all saying what a good kid Paul is.  Representatives from Paul’s church and scout troop spoke on Paul’s behalf, as did the school psychologist.  The principal didn’t show up, but the assistant principal admitted that (a) nobody had witnessed the altercation, and (b) nobody had seen the alleged weapon, as it had been disposed of by the custodian (after all it was just a scrap of rubber).  He also stated that the school wanted Paul to come back.  On the way out of the hearing, the assistant principal stated to Paul’s parents that the outcome was expected to be good.

Fast forward a few days, and the following two choices were presented to the parents:  (1) Expulsion, with Paul being transferred to a magnet school for the rest of the year.  (2) Home instruction for the remainder of the term, which would not go on the record as an expulsion (and hopefully would not prevent Paul from attending the advanced HS program next year).  The family chose (2) because they didn’t want an expulsion on Paul’s record.  Technically they could appeal, but that would take time and money.  They could make a big stink and expose this outrage, but then if someone decided to be vindictive, that could make things harder for Paul in HS.  Paul will do fine with home instruction, but it’s not what he or his parents wanted.  He just wanted to go back to school after his suspension (which was already kind of harsh by itself).

Right now there is a father home sick from work, sick to his stomach about the injustice and the outrage that his young son just had to go through, and his inability to prevent it.  A boy who does not understand why his school turned against him in this way.  A mom who needs to figure out how to arrange home instruction during her work week and how to keep her son from being socially isolated for the next 2+ months.

Myself, I am simply shocked that the result was so unreasonable.  I guess I never really thought this could happen to a kid who had never before been so much as sent to the principal, not ever.  When by all accounts, he was more a victim than anything else.

It goes without saying that if I, or any of my siblings, had attended school under these circumstances, we all would have been thrown out.  And we were considered “good” students.

So I don’t know, is there anything we should do?  It seems wrong to just sit and say “sorry for your trouble.”  Like I said at the beginning, we all know “zero tolerance” is stupid, but what can we do about it?

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20 Responses to Zero Tolerance

  1. Joy says:

    This makes me sadder than I can even say. From a former school employee and as a parent. I feel so bad for this family. It’s always kids like this too who end up always being the ones to be hurt whether it’s something like this or with bullying. It seems like it’s the ‘nerdy’ kids who always get the short end of the stick.

    Zero tolerance has to got be ABOLISHED. I don’t know how to go about it. If it were me, I’d be at every school board meeting. I’d make myself heard. Heck, I was heard and back in the day. I was at school board meetings. I kept my enemies close. They will get you if you let them. The parents of now have to unite and stand together. There is power in numbers and this has to stop.

    The thing is that not every situation is the same. I don’t care if you’re a kid or an adult. I feel every situation needs to be seen for what it is and not just a broad blanket rule. I also don’t believe in the three strike law. You can’t tell me that getting a speeding ticket is the same as rape. There’s also no way a piece of rubber is a gun or a knife. What was wrong with this teacher and these “people in charge?” Also, it seems to me had this principal didn’t check on the situation right in the first place or the word “weapon” wouldn’t’ even have been used but now that it has, these people in charge are on a high horse and won’t admit to defeat. What made this principal come to this conclusion?

    This makes me very sad.

  2. SKL says:

    I wish there could be zero tolerance for stupidity by school administrators, but unfortunately that will never make it into the handbooks.

    When I was a kid, a similar incident happened to me. I was tormented by differently-minded classmates, and finally decided it would keep getting worse until I “fought back.” A “fight” was arranged and, although I didn’t actually hit the other person, I told the asst. principal that I had. It was my first offense, so I received a 3-day in-school “suspension.” No big deal. The idea that a kid could be expelled from school for a similar “offense” is simply ridiculous.

    This brings up an interesting point. Given that “zero tolerance” is known to create ridiculous results, isn’t it dangerous to just sit and watch until it happens to us? If more people realized their “good kid” could be expelled over an incident that, in our day, would have resulted in a short suspension at most, would they be more vocal about getting the rules changed before it got to that point? Is it past time to hope the schools will come to their senses on their own?

    Are parents in any localities organizing around this issue, lobbying the local politicians, making it an election issue?

  3. Joy says:

    I don’t know if there are any organisations or not SKL but I’d sure find out if I were a parent of a school aged child now. You know school administration has to get votes to keep their jobs. They don’t want parents unhappy but so many people just let things go until it happens to them. People have to form committee’s and unite. Let them know how upset we are. This is atrocious.

  4. Laura says:

    This is one of many reasons that I have Josh in a private school. It’s not the cure for all ills, but where he is, it’s a tiny (130 students total, k-8) school and everybody knows everybody else. I don’t think we have any zero tolerance rules, but we do have a lot of very common-sense based teachers and a principal who believes in that, as well. The board is made up of parents of the kids in the school. We all know each other.

    I know that our public school, however, is a massive mess. They’re closing schools, shifting kids around, dumping staff and classes left and right. And likely (judging by one of the principals that I met), worship at the altar of “zero tolerance” among other things. The school in the next town over would only allow plastic spoons in their cafeteria because of their own “zero tolerance” rules against weapons.

    From what I’ve seen, “zero tolerance” is just another wall to hide behind, so people don’t have to do the sticky work of thinking for themselves. So often, we hear of this happening – and it’s all common sense stuff. Those two kids that I wrote about, a plastic knife to cut a cake, a 2″ pocket knife in a first aid kit in the trunk of a car, these things get kids expelled like they’re hardened criminals, and yet the bullies get chance after chance after chance because they have “emotional troubles” and need “counseling.” BS.

    Oh, it makes me furious.

    But I, too, don’t know which way to turn. My vote is to completely overhaul the entire public school system. But that isn’t likely to happen, because it’s part of a bigger problem.

    I think the best thing to do is what SKL said… get to know your local school’s rules. Be an advocate for the kids. If the zero tolerance rules do exist, know them intimately, and pose questions to your school board – “what if this happens?” and make them answer the questions. So often, we put rules in place because they sound good at the time, but we never think through the actual ramifications. Take a lesson from any six-year-old and play a really long game of “what if”. And if they can’t answer those questions logically and thoughtfully during an exercise, how on Earth are they going to deal with the tough situation when faced with it? And the really important thing is to not let them off the hook. If they *must* have a zero-tolerance rule in place, make it ridiculously specific:

    “No real guns that fire real bullets, to include bullets made of any kind of lead and/or rubber, shall be allowed. Guns made for play, including squirt guns which shoot water will not be allowed, but will also not be punished under this Zero Tolerance rule. They will be considered toys. We recognize that ‘children will be children’, and the use of hands in the shape of guns, sticks, or other flotsam, picked up and used as a gun, accompanied by a “pow pow” sound, will not be considered under this Zero Tolerance rule”

    And so on.

    • Laura says:


      “each and every case shall be considered individually, and the student’s past behavior shall be taken into consideration. Zero Tolerance shall only be used as a guideline – not as a blanket, and the final decision shall be made within the bounds of common sense, and shall reside with the principal/superintendent/school board/whatever”

    • Joy says:

      What saddens me Laura is not everyone can private school their kids and it fixes nothing. It’s almost like looking the other way.

  5. joanharvest says:

    ” a third-grade girl who “was expelled for a year because her grandmother had sent a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it. The teacher called the principal — but not before using the knife to cut and serve the cake.”

    “Caught red-handed, the Newark, Delaware, six-year-old was suspended from his school and may face 45 days in reform school for violating the Christina School District’s “zero tolerance” policy on weapons. His offense?
    Bringing a camping utensil set to school”

    Just two more cases of “zero tolerance” and NO common sense on the part of school officials.

    It makes me want to home school Lilah. Joy, I can understand why you feel so sad. It’s a very sad business when a good kid is punished like that.

    • SKL says:

      I’d heard about the girl and the knife, but I didn’t realize (a) it was her birthday cake and (b) she was expelled for a year. That is just horrible. Being kicked out of school for sharing her birthday cake? Are these people insane? I hope they appealed and won the appeal. I know it’s too much to hope that the principal got fired.

      • Laura says:

        both of those cases happened at the same school – we talked about them here, a while back when I wrote about Zero Tolerance.

        I also included the story about the Eagle Scout who was on his way to West Point, and was suspended because he had a 2″ pocket knife in his first aid kit, in the trunk of his car, which was locked and parked in the school’s lot.

        There was another situation where a kid was suspended because he had his hunting rifle in his car. He had gone hunting with a friend before school, and, knowing about the Zero Tolerance rule at school, so he parked OFF of school property. The principal heard about the weapon, and suspended him anyway.

  6. Ellen says:

    This is such a frustrating situation. The boy, who started this, walks out! The good kid, has to suffer big time. I am so sorry these cases happen. The power of the school system is scary.

  7. I never even knew about this! This is absolutely ridiculous! How the heck is itb possible to suspend a kid for something like this? He’s a KID, kids get into scraps all the time – so what’s the message here? Kids fighting with their fists is fine and dandy and alright, but if someone has a piece of SCHOOL MATERIAL in their hands it’s considered a WEAPON?!?

    This is just like or worse than the way they now don’t let people take nail filers on planes. What, a nail file is a weapon but a mug of hot coffee or tea isn’t??

    Sometimes it seems that governments have absolutely NO logic…

  8. Laura says:

    I think, getting back to the original question… “What can we do?”

    In addition to getting active in our schools, I’m sorry to say, the only thing that people understand nowadays is a lawsuit. You can’t ‘vote the bastards out’, because enough people don’t have any clue about the stupidity that goes on within the ranks of their own school, although if a big enough stink is made, they’ll vote them out. Unfortunately, they won’t do the research to then vote in GOOD people. They just vote out the bad ones and figure their job is done. As long as Mr. Smith isn’t in there, the world is fine again. (George Bush is out. Good Riddance. We vote for “change”. What kind of change? We don’t care, as long as it isn’t Bush. But Bush cant’ run again. Don’t care. This guy stands for “Hope” and “Change”. He’s qualified. See what I mean?)

    So… a lawsuit gets the attention of the school – but the demand should NOT be for money, although certain monetary damages may be appropriate. The demand should be to force the school (heck, go all the way up the line, to the Education Department at the federal level) to re-examine ALL Zero Tolerance rules and apply them with common sense, not in a knee-jerk, blindfolded manner.

    The other thing that might work is a grassroots movement. If enough people are fed up with this, if enough media attention is turned toward it, people will jump on the bandwagon and demand that things change. Look at the Tea Parties – heck, look at, to be politically balanced. Plenty of federal policies have been brought to the public’s attention by grassroots movements. Start a website, get some TV time, and find a celebrity who supports the cause, and you’re off and running.

    • Joy says:

      A grass roots movement is what I’m talking about. We need people to demand things change and we aren’t going to take it anymore. What’s next? Do we really want the school calling all the shots? This poor boy has to stay at home and his parents have to arrange their schedule’s around homeschooling him and he didn’t do anything more than “maybe” earn a detention for fighting ALONG with the other boy.

      It’s the same thing as a little boy gets up to sharpen his pencil to many times in a day so we have to drug him. ADD you know. I usually stand behind the school. SKL and Laura, you both know that but this is wrong. Kids are kids and the school setting needs to go back to the way it used to be. Deal with kids as they come up. You can NOT have this.

      I think the tea parties are a wonderful idea. People ARE listening. Man…..I’m steamed. Notice I didn’t cuss???

  9. joz1234 says:

    Another example of an institution using a rule made to protect the institution. Zero tolerance policies have a place in certain situations, but the lack of using common sense and handling them case by case is probably because the school district is afraid to get sued for treating one kid differently from another. It’s ridiculous, because in the classroom they expect teachers to “differentiate” instruction to help every student and provide opportunity for them to meet their potentials and exceed them, but in handling situations such as this, that all goes out the window.

    I completely agree that the system should be challenged. The fact that the principal was not involved reeks, and I’m hugely disappointed in the leadership at this school. Then again, I’m disappointed with the leadership at most schools.

  10. DM says:

    My first thought-another example of politically correct BS force fed to us by the book smart brain dead “experts”- just like the new health care bill-

  11. Lucy says:

    WHERE”S COMMON SENSE!!!!???? This is so frustrating to me. I get that schools want to protect themselves but in this situation it shouldnt have been used.
    I don’t really have any advice as to what to do…. but it seems like petitioning to the school board might be successful.

  12. starlaschat says:

    I don’t know where to start. It just seems like the tip of the ice burg. Simple common sense, have people lost their minds? I tilt my head in disbelief . I think in a way the schools are like businesses and if a business is not run well, people should speak up. It’s difficult when the emperor has no clothes, it takes courage to point that out and often being ridiculed at first. I do miss many things from the past simple common sense is one. Not brushing things with such a broad stroke, but to look at individual circumstance and make a sensible decision . I’ll probably be thinking about this all day. This kinds of situation I am not looking forward to witnessing when Navar becomes a Teacher.

  13. Jim says:

    I’ve mentioned Randy Cassingham’s web site / blog before ( He writes quite often about the zero tolerance problem in our schools.

    Here’s a problem for you to find a solution to:

    “Johnny is in fifth grade, as he walks out of the school building (K-6) he finds a 3” pocket knife laying open in the grass. Other children are leaving also. He has been taught how to properly handle a knife. He knows that if he leaves it laying there a kindergartener may find it and hurt himself with it. What should he do?

    Go tell an adult staff member?
    Ignore it, leave it laying there and go home?

    ……These two will keep him from trouble with the school, but leave him with the knowledge that another child could find it and get hurt.

    On the other hand if he picks it up, and takes it to a school official, he will be kicked out of school for a weapons violation.

    The third option is to pick it up, put it in his pocket and take it home to his parents. The problem with this one is that if a ZT thinking teacher sees him pick it up, he again gets busted.

    My son was involved with Scouts while in grade school and high school and I told him that if he ever realized that his knife from a scouting event was still in his backpack or coat pocket while in school, he was to leave it there, TELL NO ONE, make sure that it didn’t fall out by accident, and wait until he got home to remove it.

  14. Nikki says:

    Wow, I’m coming inhere late but I’ll add my 2 cents. The system is set up to protect itself, not the kids! I won’t get into the whole private/public thing. The public school system needs work no doubt, and it’ll take a huge number of parents getting up and standing up for what they feel is right. Still I don’t know if the Zero tolerance rule will ever be abolished. Again, it protects the system.

    I have a friend in CA, she has a 10 year old. He found an old bullet shell casing and thought it was cool so he took it to school to show his friends. Someone told and he got suspended for 3 days. An empty bullet casing! I think every situation should be taken care of individually. However, that would take more time and it can always be shoved back in their face. That’s why they don’t do it that way! You’ll have one parent saying, “well you let lil Johny stay in school for this or that!” As sad and WRONG as it is, I don’t see it ever going away. Unfortunately we have to tip toe around what we find to be common sense. I’d be surprised if it ever changed, but I hope for that!

    In this case above, I find it way OVER THE TOP!!!!! I’d fight tooth and nail to get that over turned. I wouldn’t feel right letting that go. Too many people think, “I’m only one person, I can’t make the change.” But if each person who thought that, stood up and fought the system we may get somewhere. GOOD LUCK!!!!

  15. Sue says:

    I agree with what everyone else has said. Where is common sense? Where is personal responsibility? The little guy/the guy who follows the rules always, ALWAYS, gets the shaft.

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