Zero Tolerance and School Safety

“Zero tolerance” has been a political buzzword for so many years now that it has more meaning in the minds of academicians and politicians than it does in day-to-day practice by school administrators.

In well over 25 years of school safety experience with school officials in 50 states, we have consistently found the vast majority of school administrators to strive for firm, fair, and consistent discipline applied with good common sense.  Unfortunately, there are anecdotal incidents from time to time which lack the latter part of the equation:  The common sense.It is these cases that get labeled as “zero tolerance” by critics who falsely try to create a perception that there is some type of mass conspiracy by educators to unfairly discipline children.  Contrary to suggestions by the media, politicians, and Ivory-Tower theorists, the real problem is therefore the absence of common sense and questionable implementation of disciplinary policies, not the presence of intentionally harsh actions committed to fuel a master nationwide conspiracy plan called “zero tolerance.”

Schools have also developed tunnel vision focus in training school administrators on how to improve test scores, but often fail to provide adequate training on discipline and school safety issues.  Proper training of school administrators on school board policies, disciplinary procedures, and overall school safety issues can reduce the risks of questionable actions by school administrators.

If anything, our experience has shown that just the opposite exists:  Many educators tend to bend over backwards to give students more breaks than they will ever receive out on the streets of our society and in the workplace where we are supposed to be preparing them to function.  We can count many, many more instances where we have seen far too lax discipline in our schools than we can count cases where the discipline administered was overly harsh and abusively punitive as some critics want to suggest.In the end, those kids who receive less than firm, fair, and consistent discipline end up being taught that there are no consequences for inappropriate — and sometimes illegal — behavior as long as it occurs within the grounds of those schools having administrators who are often more worried about keeping their disciplinary and criminal incident reports down for the sake of their own career advancement.

To keep it in perspective, the VAST MAJORITY of school administrators strive for that target of firm, fair, and consistent discipline.  The average school administrator is not an extremist on either end of the continuum.

Perhaps most alarming is how the zero tolerance phrase has taken on a life of its own and how it has been exaggerated for the purpose of either supporting or opposing other school safety strategies.  For example, academic and “think tank” reports use zero tolerance as a backdrop to promote prevention programs while discrediting school security practices.

These reports typically err, however, by inaccurately and narrowly defining school security to mean metal detectors, surveillance cameras, school security personnel, School Resource Officers (SROs) or other police in schools, locker searches, and/or school uniforms.  Most school security specialists agree that professional school security programs are much more comprehensive and include security policies and procedures, crime prevention training, crisis preparedness planning, physical design evaluation, coordination with public safety officials, and numerous other components.  While these other tools and strategies may be a necessary and appropriate part of many school safety plans, truly professional school security programs are much more encompassing than one or two single approaches.

It is also particularly interesting that the primary basis for many of these reports’ anti-security and anti-police arguments rest upon the absence of formal academic studies of school security and school policing programs.    Ironically, these reports typically fail to also point out that a number of academic evaluations have identified major weaknesses in many prevention and intervention programs, too, and in some cases have indicated that a number of those programs evaluated are simply ineffective. Yet the authors of these reports condemn school security programs (under the guise of zero tolerance) while continuing to promote prevention programs simply because there have indeed been formal evaluations of prevention programs — regardless of the mixed evaluation findings.

Practical experience repeatedly demonstrates that school safety plans need to reflect a balance of strategies focused on prevention, intervention, school climate, firm and fair discipline, mental health support, proactive security measures, crisis preparedness planning, and community networking. Reasonable security and discipline measures must be a part of these plans so that educators can maintain a secure environment in the here-and-now in order for education and prevention programs to have their longer-term impact in the future.  Furthermore, professionally utilized SRO and security personnel, security technology, and related measures can and do, in many cases, reduce risks and prevent school violence.

Zero tolerance has taken on a life of its own, but primarily by politicians, academicians, and in some cases the media.  We owe it to our students, school staff, and parents to get beyond the political and academic rhetoric of the zero tolerance debate. Improve training for school administrators on board discipline policies, implementing student code of conducts fairly and consistently with common sense, and improving school safety in a balanced and rational manner. Deal with each individual case of questionable discipline, but move on to the real work of implementing meaningful, balanced school safety programs such as those enacted by the majority of educators across the nation.

For questions and comments, email Ken Trump.