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Zero Tolerance Policies and Bullying in the Classroom
posted by: Guest contributor | July 20, 2015, 05:09 PM   

By Narjis Hyder, Ed.D. and Mariam Hussain, MHA


Back in the 80’s, ‘zero tolerance’ was the catchphrase for the anti-drug campaigns that ran in schools. Nowadays, it has been modified in context to include bullying and disruptive behavior in the classroom.  Such policies are widespread among schools nationwide which “mandates the application of predetermined consequences, most often severe and punitive in nature that are intended to be applied regardless of the gravity of behavior, mitigating circumstances or situational context.” In other words, it does not matter what the situation or the type of behavior was zero tolerance will be applied. For instance, the newspaper St. Petersburg Times, reported that a 10 year old girl was expelled from school for possession of a weapon.  The weapon was discovered when the girl herself handed it to her teacher.  The weapon was a plastic knife that her mother had placed in her lunchbox for slicing an apple. In another instance, an adolescent boy was also expelled for talking to his mother on a cell phone in school where cell phone use is not allowed. He had not spoken to her in 30 days because she was a soldier stationed in Iraq.  The above cases were the result of zero tolerance policies, where schools were not given the freedom of discretion so as to be fair and effective in controlling disruptive and/or bullying behavior. But is a zero tolerance policy really the best method to prevent bullying and other disruptive behaviors in the classroom?


We should investigate whether zero tolerance policies have actually made schools safer. According to a recent article by the Vera Institute of Justice, there has been no research supporting a decrease in disruptive behavior or violence in schools with the implementation of zero tolerance policies. In the article, the decrease in disruptive or bullying behavior in the classroom is due to an overall decline in juvenile violent crime across the United States between 1980 and 2012. In fact, according to the FBI, the juvenile violence rate is at an all-time low.  So, the decrease in disruptive behavior in the classroom is probably due to the overall decrease in juvenile crimes across the nation and not because of zero tolerance policies. The NASP goes further to say that these zero tolerance policies have not only brought any positive results but have actually had negative consequences on students and their schools. “Rather than increasing school safety, zero tolerance often leads to indiscriminate suspensions and expulsions for both serious and mild infractions and disproportionately impacts students from minority status backgrounds and those with disabilities.” Furthermore, it was found that a disproportionate number of African-American students and students with disabilities were suspended or expelled. However, there is no data that supports African-American students or students with disabilities being more disruptive or more violent that would warrant such disciplinary actions.


It has also been noted that students who are disciplined in the zero tolerance policy have a multitude of negative consequences. Psychosocial immaturity which can include poor resistance to peer influence, attitude towards perception of risk, future orientation, and impulse control is a major negative consequence of adolescents who were subjected to this discipline. Another negative consequence is that the rate of dropping out is much higher for students who have been subjected to zero tolerance such that it hinders their academic progress.  “In one national longitudinal study, youth with a prior suspension were 68 percent more likely to drop out of school.” Dropping out of school can effectively lead to lower incomes and greater probability of unemployment.  There is a good amount of evidence that shows that preventing bullying or disruptive behavior is far more cost effective than zero tolerance policies which can eventually lead to unemployment, welfare and prison costs.


Alternative methods to zero tolerance can greatly enhance the classroom and the students future.  Reinforcing positive behavior instead of disciplining negative behavior provides support for the student.  In a recent study, it was shown that positive support of behavior in the classroom promotes “order, discipline, fairness, and productive student-teacher relationships.” Also, it would be better to properly review the disruptive behavior in its own context before taking disciplinary action.  In the examples given in the beginning of the article, a better review of the context would probably not have led to the students being expelled from the school.  The girl who was expelled because she carried “a weapon” in the school demonstrated positive behavior by turning in the plastic knife when she saw her mother placed it her lunch for her to slice the apple.  The teacher should have interpreted that as a positive behavior for handing in something the student knew she was not supposed to have in her possession.  If she reviewed the situation, she would have known that the mother placed it in her lunchbox.  It was not warranted for the girl to be expelled.  In the second example of the adolescent boy talking to his mother, review of the context of his situation should have provided leniency.  The adolescent had not spoken to his mother (who was in Iraq) for 30 days and it probably was comforting to him to hear his mother’s voice and know that she is safe.  That certainly is not disruptive or bullying behavior.


Proper training and education of the teacher and school administration can provide an alternate form of discipline other than zero tolerance.  Classroom management can effectively address minor disruptive behavior at that level and not be allowed to escalate to the point of extreme discipline such as suspension or expulsion.  Administration and teachers can use models that will provide alternate methods of addressing minor bullying or disruptive behavior.  “Schools implementing effective strategies have reported reductions in office discipline referrals by 20-60%; this results in improved access to academic engaged time and improved academic performance for all students.” The growing consensus is that reinforcement of positive behavior, proper review of disruptive or bullying behavior viewed in its context, and the proper training of the educator can have a much better result than zero tolerance policies have proven.


Using zero tolerance policies have proven to be less effective in the classroom and in the life of the student.  Alternative methods such as positive reinforcement, understanding negative behavior in context and training of our children’s educators is proving to be much more effective in managing the classroom. This will help to reduce disruptive and bullying behavior, produce better members of society who are less likely to go to prison and use welfare and more likely to complete school and earn higher degrees of education.

Comments (3)Add Comment
written by Daisy Jepchumba, February 11, 2021

Zero tolerance should be totally abolished in schools as it is the worst method to use
written by Anthony Michael Jones Las Vegas NV, July 02, 2019

That's not true, the cases with the cell phone and the plastic knife were not under zero tolerance it was a case of a Principle being either a b***h or bastard there was zero tolerance at my school and we had plastic knife and the punishment for cell phone use was confiscation
gang presence/no tolerance
written by Edward Ruland, November 29, 2018

I have had the misfortune to experience an incident that caused the school to expel my 16 year old son for the better part of the 2018/2019 school year. The basis of their decision is based on a second act of aggression after school hours that they insist demonstrates my sons propensity for violence. My issue is simply this. There was witnessed and addressed by administration students displaying gang colors at school which prescribes to a no tolerance policy to gangs. They pulled the students into the office and explained the consequences(don't know what they said), called the parents and told said students to refrain from further displaying gang colors and thus released them to return to class. A couple of days later those same students that were displaying gang colors were involved in a altercation involving multiple students, one of which was my son whom was unexpectedly punched in the face. My son blacked out and entered the altercation without conscience thought. I will also state that my son was involved in another much less violent altercation after school which illustrates his propensity for violence. My thoughts are simply this; if the school had in fact enacted a no tolerance policy as prescribed by the NCES web site pertaining to bullying and gang activity this whole situation could have been avoided. I am not trying to begin litigation, that is not the purpose of this. The purpose is to define no tolerance in relation to gangs at our public school systems. I believe the school acted negligently when not implementing their no tolerance policy as defined by the NCES web site and thus contributed to the culmination of events that lead to my sons expulsion.

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