zero tolerance

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Zero Tolerance

The policy of applying laws or penalties to even minor infringements of a code in order to reinforce its overall importance and enhance deterrence.

Since the 1980s the phrase zero tolerance has signified a philosophy toward illegal conduct that favors strict imposition of penalties regardless of the individual circumstances of each case. Zero tolerance policies deal primarily with drugs and weapons and have been implemented by most school districts in the United States. Two federal laws have driven zero tolerance but state legislatures have also been willing to mandate similar policies. Supporters of zero tolerance policies contend that they promote the safety and well-being of school children and send a powerful message of deterrence. In addition, supporters believe strict adherence to these polices ensures that school officials do not treat individual children differently. Critics of zero tolerance believe that inflexible discipline policies produce harmful results. Moreover, school administrators have failed to use common sense in applying zero tolerance, leading to the expulsion of children for bringing to school such items as an aspirin or a plastic knife.

The term zero tolerance was first employed by President ronald reagan's administration when it launched its War on Drugs initiative in the early 1980s. Some school districts embraced the initiative in an attempt to eradicate drug possession and drug use on school property. The policy became law, however, when Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Act of 1989 (Pub.L. 101-226, December 12, 1989, 103 Stat. 1928). The act banned the unlawful use, possession, or distribution of drugs and alcohol by students and employees on school grounds and college campuses. It required educational agencies and institutions of higher learning to establish disciplinary sanctions for violations or risk losing federal aid. As a result, the majority of schools and colleges immediately began to adopt zero tolerance polices to safeguard their federal funding.

Congress legislated zero tolerance polices toward weapons on school grounds when it passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 (Pub. L. 103-382, Title I, § 101, October 20, 1994, 198 Stat. 3907). According to the act, every state had to pass a law requiring educational agencies to expel from school, for not less than one year, any student found in possession of a gun. Students with disabilities under either the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) (Pub.L. 91-230, Title VI, April 13, 1970, 84 Stat. 175 to 188) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Pub.L. 93-112, September 26, 1973, 87 Stat. 355) could be expelled for only 45 days. Despite these strict provisions, the act permitted school superintendents to modify the expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis.

This federal law was the catalyst for school zero tolerance policies that soon went beyond drugs and weapons to include hate speech, harassment, fighting, and dress codes. School principals, who must administer zero tolerance policies, began to suspend and expel students for seemingly trivial offenses. Students have been suspended or expelled for a host of relatively minor incidents, including possession of nail files, paper clips, organic cough drops, a model rocket, a five-inch plastic ax as part of a Halloween costume, an inhaler for asthma, and a kitchen knife in a lunch box to cut chicken. Outraged parents of children disciplined by zero tolerance policies protested to school boards, publicized their cases with the news media, and sometimes filed lawsuits in court seeking the overturning of the discipline. Courts generally have rejected such lawsuits, concluding that school administrators must have the ability to exercise their judgment in maintaining school safety.

One study, however, issued by the Advancement Project in 2000, suggested that zero tolerance, while supposedly a neutral policy, was applied disproportionately to students of color. Such concerns led the American Bar Association (ABA) in 2001 to pass a resolution opposing, in principle, zero tolerance policies that (1) have a discriminatory effect, or (2) set forth mandatory punishment without regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense, or the student's history. The ABA concluded that such "one-size-fits-all" policies violate students' due process rights. Although the organization urged schools to maintain strong prevention policies, it also wanted to ensure that students' rights were protected when they were disciplined.

Despite the backlash, zero tolerance has remained a central part of school administration. In particular, zero tolerance for weapons has been a top priority due, in part, to a string of school shootings, which culminated in the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado. Some school administrators have turned to zero tolerance policies because they need to respond swiftly and decisively in order to maintain control and discipline. They contend that such polices can be communicated clearly and forcefully to students so they understand that discipline will be immediate and predictable. Finally, another reason for school administrators to embrace zero tolerance policies is legal liability. A school that does not enforce a zero tolerance policy risks a civil lawsuit by victims of school violence.

Further readings

American Bar Association: Criminal Justice Section. 2001. Report on Zero Tolerance. Available online at <> (accessed August 27, 2003).Ayers, William, Bernardine Dohrn, and Rick Ayers, eds. 2001. Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment. New York: New Press.

Skiba, Russell J., and Gil G. Noam, eds. 2002. Zero Tolerance: Can Suspension and Expulsion Keep Schools Safe? New York: Jossey-Bass.


Schools and School Districts; Three Strikes Laws.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

zero tolerance

the policy of applying laws or penalties to even minor infringements of a code in order to reinforce its overall importance.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
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