Zero Tolerance Hurts Kids and Ruins Schools

We need common sense in our schools, not mindless bureaucratic compliance.


Virginia Beach sixth-grader Adrionna Harris took a razor away from a troubled student who was cutting himself and threw it in the trash. When school administrators found out, they gave her a certificate of merit for helping a classmate.

Ha, ha! Of course they didn't. They gave her a 10-day suspension, with a recommendation that she be expelled. For three or four seconds there, she was in possession of a dangerous object in violation of the school's zero-tolerance policies.

The only reason administrators found out about the incident was that Adrionna volunteered the information. And the only reason she threw the razor away instead of turning it in was because she didn't want to violate school policy. As she told WAVY-TV, she didn't want to "hold it in my hand long enough for it to, like, become an issue. The trash can was right there."

School officials eventually backed down—after getting slammed by bad publicity—and the young lady returned to school a few days ago. Administrators reportedly are tired of taking heat from the public, the poor dears. (Why do bad things always happen to them?)

Nathan Entingh wasn't so lucky. The 10-year-old who pointed his finger and said "bang" was suspended for what the Einsteins of the Columbus, Ohio, school system considered a "level 2 look-alike firearm." After agonizing over that decision for weeks, officials decided that, on reflection, they had been right all along. They upheld the suspension.

Entingh got off lucky compared with Jordan Wiser, who spent 13 days in jail on a felony charge because he drove onto school property with a pocketknife in the trunk of his car. Then there's Taylor Trostle, a middle-schooler suspended for pointing her finger and saying, "pew, pew." And Andrew Mikel, a Spotsylvania, Virginia, 14-year-old expelled and charged with assault for blowing pellets through a plastic pen tube. And 7-year-old Josh Welch, of the infamous Pop-Tart gun. And too many other cases to list.

Zero-tolerance policies have been around for a couple of decades. They were launched by the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required expulsion for bringing a firearm to school. But like diaper rash, they did not remain confined to one area. Soon kids were landing in hot water for bringing to school such deadly objects as a butter knife (King William, Va.) and nail clippers (Escambia, Fla.). They have gotten in trouble for engaging in such threatening behavior as drawing an Army man (Ouachita Parish, La.) and playing cops and robbers (Sayreville, N.J., and elsewhere). And for taking or handing out birth control (Fairfax, Va.), Midol (Pierce County, Wash.), Alka-Seltzer (too many places to name), and even Certs breath mints (Manassas, Va.).

Such stories invariably elicit outrage, and from time to time a district here or there will rethink zero-tolerance policies, or claim to. "Rethinking Zero Tolerance: A Few Schools Are Inching Away from One-Strike Policies," reported Newsweek back in 2001. A decade later, The Washington Post reported "More Schools Rethinking Zero-Tolerance Discipline Stand."

They must not be the fastest thinkers. In January 2013, a 5-year-old girl was kicked out of kindergarten for "threatening" to "shoot" classmates with a Hello Kitty soap-bubble gun. But don't worry—this January, The New York Times confidently informed readers that "schools across the country are rethinking 'zero tolerance' discipline policies."

If your brain has more electrical activity than a bowl of lukewarm Jell-O, then you know why zero-tolerance policies are stupid. First, they ignore blatantly obvious distinctions. Gnawing a Pop-Tart into the rough silhouette of a gun does not turn it into a firearm. Breath mints are not a Schedule I narcotic. Fingers don't fire projectiles.

Second, zero-tolerance policies don't prevent the incidents they are designed to prevent. Deeply disturbed individuals who commit school massacres—the Dylan Klebolds and Adam Lanzas of the world—are not deterred by rules, and they do not commit mayhem with soap bubbles. So a rule that bans soap-bubble guns in school has zero effect on school violence.

School officials will reply that they have to apply school policies consistently: A knife is a knife, and knives are weapons, even when they are used to spread butter. Nonsense. By that logic everyone on the wrestling team should be suspended for fighting, and a student who sketches a rifle should be punished for "drawing a gun" (which has actually happened more than once).

It's great that a school district here and there has second thoughts about first-strike policies. But that doesn't solve the broader problem, which is rooted in a bureaucratic compliance mentality. Just ask Chaz Seale, a Texas 17-year-old who accidentally shoved a Coors into his brown-bag lunch instead of a soda. When he realized his mistake he gave the unopened beer to a teacher. The teacher told the principal, and the principal suspended Seale for three days and sentenced him to two months at an alternative school.

Like Adrionna Harris and countless others, Seale has learned two things from zero-tolerance policies: No good deed goes unpunished. And—as comedian Ron White likes to say—you can't fix stupid.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  1. Zero Tolerance Hurts Kids and Ruins Schools

    Oh, the eternal optimist! As if there was something in the Amerikan Pulbic Skool Seistem dat teeches two red and wrait to ruin!

    1. The local school system is pretty good here. My youngest is taking three college-credit courses in the local public high school. Last year she took two and we just scheduled her for three more next year.

      OTOH, she knew more about nutrition than her 9th grade (two years ago) “health” teacher. It was funny when she showed a hand-out from her history class to the health teacher that contradicted what she taught.

      1. Didn’t take long for the irrelevant non sequitur to show up.

  2. For some reason I’m reminded of the old English code of law where crimes as minor as petty theft were punishable by theft. The violent crime rate went up, simply because the perpetrators knew the punishment couldn’t get worse, so it was better to kill the witnesses. While I don’t see a similar effect emerging from ZT, there is a bit of a parallel in there.

    1. Like how, as a man, I would now never approach a crying child to see what was wrong or speak to a child not accompanied by an adult.

    2. Re: UnCivilServant,

      “… where crimes as minor as petty theft were punishable by theft death.”

      I believe that is what you meant to write.

      1. Sorry, thanks. My mind was ahead of my typing.

        1. OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!

          1. It’s where the expression “hung for a sheep as a lamb” came from. The idea being it was just a bad, so people stole sheep.

    3. Another parallel is the idea that rape is tantamount to murder, which to any rational person it is not. I’ve actually debated human beings that strongly believe this and desire that laws reflect this extremist emotional position.

      It sounds bizarre to state this but if you are an evil and criminally-minded person with sociopathic tendencies the legal system is almost designed to encourage murder or acts of incredible brutality when one considers that he or she will be imprisoned indefinitely anyway if other serious charges are likely.

      At some point the law becomes a moot point. Humans have short lives. You can only cram so much punishment into 40-50 years. A violent criminal could happily rape and kill 5 women knowing full well that the first rape alone would likely net him 20 years or more or a good chunk of life in jail and a ruined future out of it so why not go out with a bang? Sometimes I wonder if this approach encourages serial killers.

      1. I doubt serial killers put much game theory into mapping out their life-goals.

        I mean, sure, in the billions of people on the planet, you should be able to find a couple of examples, but my sense is most serial killers are acting out of an emotional need to hurt, and they don’t really put a lot of thought to the question of “to kill or not to kill”, but rather to “how do I kill and not get caught”.

      2. It is true that if rape were punishable by death, it would make sense for the rapist to kill his victim to leave no witness since the murder is essentially free once the rape penalty kicks in.

        1. Once again Moral Hazard appears and taunts us while he – the creation of man – hurts, injures and kills the innocent in front of our very own eyes. But to find him and slay him, that my brothers, requires a man of noble and superior intellect that can see what can not be seen.

      3. “the legal system is almost designed to encourage murder or acts of incredible brutality”

        You think it’s almost or coincidental?

  3. My daughter is currently, in the middle of science class, using a paring knife to peel and cut up an apple. Should I, as the teacher, report her to myself, the principal, and take the matter to myself, as the school board?

    I tend to think that an organization so stupid as to suspend someone for throwing away a razor is utterly unqualified to teach my kids anything other than distrust and loathing, and they can learn that from them a distance.

    1. Expel her and send her to public skool. That’ll learn her to use dangerous weapons at home!

      1. She gave me the peel, so I’m going to show some leniency.

        1. Hmph. Accepting bribes from the students. And not even a substantial one. Have some standards man – minimum payment levels at least.

          1. A true teacher would want the whole apple.

    2. If there’s no bleeding and no severed fingers, I wouldn’t worry about it.

    3. I tend to think that an organization so stupid as to suspend someone for throwing away a razor is utterly unqualified to teach my kids anything other than distrust and loathing, and they can learn that from them a distance.


      I don’t understand why parents aren’t demanding the termination of people making these decisions (or is it not making decisions?)? This person is paid to be a role model and a leader. A leader who is too chickenshit to stand up for what’s right because of an asinine school policy? FAIL. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

  4. I sometimes wonder how the idiots who write these policies, and the petty tyrants who enforce them, expect kids to understand the difference between right and wrong when kids are punished for doing the right thing. But then I remember the idiots and the tyrants don’t give a damn about right and wrong.

    1. Orders from above are right; that voice in your head is wrong.

    2. “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”


      These policy writers and petty tyrants have no moral sense. I have no respect for the law.

      1. is there something Bastiat DOESN’T have a quote for?

        1. “I hate deep dish pizza.” – The Bastiat Cookbook

  5. School officials eventually backed down ? after getting slammed by bad publicity[…]

    Well, right now it takes bad publicity and public scorn and ridicule to get these administrators to change their minds, but it won’t be long before their scaled skins grow a further inch of thickness and even that will not entice them to do the right thing.

    If there’s one truism about public service that you must remember is: only the very WORST people want and like to be public servants – the deviant, the perverse, the cruel, the amoral, the sociopath – because the rest of us can’t simply stomach such relaxation of ethical and moral inhibition, common sense and rationality.

    1. I doubt they changed their minds at all. They backed down in this one instance in order to maintain control of their fiefdom.

      1. They backed down in this one instance in order to maintain control of their fiefdom.

        Perhaps. But you cannot expect anyone in a position of power to exercise self control over that power. They will push until people push back.

        I personally sent an email to that asshole telling him I thought he should lose his job. I’m sure I was one of thousands. And it worked.

        The old saying, “freedom isn’t free” is accurate. If the people aren’t vigilant in checking abuses, you can expect more of the same.

  6. Zero tolerance is not intended to help kids. It’s intended to help administrators by taking away any need for judgement. Judgement entails responsibility. If they simply follow policy, then they are not responsible. The policy is.

    1. It almost sounds like there’s no need for administrators at all. Almost.

      1. If your job involves no discretion, then it need not be filled by a human being.

        1. The robots would probably be more sympathetic too.

        2. The human being should be taking a 50% pay cut at the very least.

    2. This is it exactly – “I don’t have to think, and I am not responsible.” It is one of the most frustrating things I deal with at work – this desire among some employees for the “rule”.

      Fortunately, there’s still a little bit of “free” left in entrprise in America, so we have….tools available to correct such thinking (“you need to learn to MAKE A DECISION YOURSELF using the best available information – it’s called judgment – look it up”), or, if need be, terminate the relationship with those who cannot be taught.

      This, too, shall pass, I have no doubt.

      For “public servants”? The incentives all run the opposite direction – “I’m rewarded for being mediocre, or downright evil”.

      This, too, shall ever get worse, I have no doubt….

      1. It’s ridiculous. The student’s state of mind doesn’t matter – they’re assumed guilty. But the administrator’s state of mind doesn’t matter either – his hands were tied! Don’t shoot the messenger! Apparently, the rule has a mind of its own.

        1. The law is the law.

          1. No, I am the law.

            /obligatory Judge Dredd reference

  7. At its most favorable, zero tolerance is a lazy policy. Instead of finding out whether a student was a threat, it just assumes the student was a threat. It has the same pernicious effect as statutory crimes. It sacrifices unknowing “offenders” in the name of (possibly) slightly higher deterrence and much easier adjudication by officials. I suppose the only upside is that the officials don’t have to dig into your personal life (though they probably still will).

    One of the most ridiculous zero tolerance policies is for DUI’s. In my home state, if you were under 21, you’d get a DUI for a BAC of over 0.02. If you were over 18, it wouldn’t be expunged when you turned 18, as you would already be an adult. So if you were 18-20 years old, you were too young to have your behavior evaluated as an adult, but too old to have your criminal record treated as such.

    1. Ask anyone who was caught doing something as a youth, who later went for a security clearance, about records being expunged when they turn 18.

      1. Is there a story here?

        1. Not today.

        2. The new school was much nicer, and the construction created a lot of jobs, win-win.

      2. I needed a security clearance for my first job, and fortunately I was never punished for my youthful shenanigans. Those security clearance standards were senseless. You could admit prior drug use and you were fine, so long as you said it was light and years ago, but if you were busted for it, you’d often get rejected. So the difference was merely whether you were caught. Incidentally, drug use was the only thing people ever got fired for.

        1. Interestingly, I had a guy working for me who got nailed for pot possession when he was 17. It was a ticket (this was California). The kid who was with him had a beer and was actually arrested and taken to jail in handcuffs.

          My guy had no problem at all getting his SC.

    2. Excessive legality creates laziness and intolerance because the law becomes the purpose and the passive ‘thinker’ becomes the mere conduit of subjugation. It is a sterile brutal process.

      1. Yep, and it effectively makes the enforcer’s discretion the law.

        1. Rule of man.

  8. If I, god forbid, was a school official I would be pissed that I wouldn’t be able to use any judgment whatsoever in these situations. I’d had have to ask rhetorically, “what the hell are you paying me for?”

    1. The people who seek these jobs don’t care about judgment. They care about power. They don’t care what the rules are, so long as they can get pleasure from ruining lives by enforcing them.

      1. I also think it comes down to the mind of the clover. People who may not get pleasure per se’ but are mentally-conditioned to feel as if importance and validity is derived through submissiveness to higher power.

      2. They are mostly there to bolster their salary towards the end of their career so they can get a higher pension payout. At this point they are just cruising through life with their eye on the prize.

  9. level 2 look-alike firearm

    There are levels now? I wonder what level 1 is. A thought? Sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me.

    1. In most places the level 2 would be the category of the offense, fighting, left etc would be a level 2 offense. What they are saying is that a look a like gun is as serious as sexual misconduct, theft or extortion.

      What I would be curious about is whether the school policy clearly identifies what constitutes a look a like gun.

  10. I will say this, they are not all bad…

    My kid got jumped at school last week, and got a concussion. He successfully fought off his attacker, but took five good punches to the crown of his head before he broke free.

    Basically, my son isn’t getting suspended for fighting, even though he put his knee through the other kid’s groin early in the festivities and at the finale kicked his assailant through a doorway.

    My meeting with the assistant principal about the mess today left me thinking that the guy was doing a good job of juggling all the competing pressures. The assailant is being semi-publicly punished, and they are clearly bending over backwards to not paint my son with the zero-tolerance brush.

    He also was a patient saint dealing with my ex-wife’s dramatic speechifying.

    1. I will say this, they are not all bad…

      How dare you!!! Heretic, burn him.

    2. A couple years ago some kid tried to beat up on my stepson who reacted by pushing him backwards. He thought that he’d get in trouble if he hit back.

      The other kid got a five day suspension, while my stepson got three.

      I told him that if he’s going to be suspended either way, to next time hit the kid instead of pushing him off.

      1. His cop father’s reaction was “Rules are rules.”

        Typical mentality of an enforcer.

        1. Yeah, but since the rules don’t apply to cops, I might have figured he wouldn’t think they applied to a cop’s kid, either.

          1. Oh, no. He’s raising that kid to blindly obey authority. His authority. School’s authority. Obey.

    3. The Assistant Principal is very aware how close this came to being a lawsuit.

  11. OT: Rage inducing video of an Arizona riot cop blindsiding a girl who is walking around hurting nobody

    1. In a just world that jackass would have had the crap kicked out of him by the mob of protestors.

    2. Even if her head had hit the concrete and split open, spilling out her brain, nothing else would have happened.

      1. Procedures were followed.

    3. I’ve gotten it through my kids’ heads: The cops are not your friends.

  12. The most distressing thing about zero tolerance policies is that while they fail to actually protect students, they are fundamentally designed to protect the administrators who wrote the policies.

    1. You are all missing the point behind zero tolerance rules. If the schools use any discretion AT ALL, they will be accused of racism if there is an imbalance in the ratio of white to black kids being punished. This is a defensive move by administrators to keep the race trollers away from the school.

    2. The policies themselves might get them off the hook as long as they’re just words on paper and never actually invoked, but as we’ve seen here time & again, actually invoking the policies in these ridiculous ways makes admins. infamous and laughing stocks.

    3. And another side effect: they indirectly encourage kids to be more sneaky. Don’t turn yourself in, don’t take initiative. “Do the right thing” will only get yourself punished. It’s a sad perversion of “snitches get stitches”.

  13. Zero tolerance is a prison policy. . . . and it doesn’t even work there very well.

  14. In just 2004 my high school allowed me to bring in a paintball gun and let my classmates shoot me up for $0.50 a shot to raise money for a research project. It was run by school teachers and in addition to classmates, both teachers AND my principal shot me. This is just 10 years ago… Crazy how fast this went downhill…

    If this were to happen today literally every student, quite a few teachers, and my principal would be facing felony assault charges. And I would be expelled for bringing a “level-2 lookalike firearm” to school…

  15. And?as comedian Ron White likes to say?you can’t fix stupid.

    You know who was a big fan of fixing stupid?

    1. George W. Bush’s personal physician?

  16. More public skool fun – this time at college level.

  17. But, as I wrote here when the story about the razor came up, what do admins. actually think in cases like that? They couldn’t possibly get in trouble, because nobody else even knew about the incident. So what could possibly motivate them to invoke a rule such that doing so would be bound to get themselves into trouble? Keep quiet about it and nobody’s the wiser, or impose a rule utterly stupidly by the letter, and become a major laughing-stock? Why are they choosing the laughing-stock route?

    Heh…”drawing a gun”…heh….

    1. hiding it is a sure way to get themselves in a bind should something serious actually happen afterwards.

      What they should do is record it, document the circumstances and justifications for not invoking the ridiculous policy and let everyone go on with their lives.

  18. my friend’s mom makes $62 hourly on the laptop . She has been laid off for nine months but last month her paycheck was $18955 just working on the laptop for a few hours. learn the facts here now………..

  19. I’m gonna be spending the next 14 years of my life hoping my kids don’t get subjected to these bullshit policies. My son’s already been warned against bringing any kind of knife to school. My daughter starts kindergarten in the fall of 2015. And I hate just knowing that they could be one ridiculous incident away from being expelled or having their “permanent record” stained.

    1. One weekend when I was in Jr High I used my school backpack to smuggle home some basic firecrackers. However I forgot to empty my bag before going to school. A friend of mine set off one in class then promptly turned me in. I had to stand in front of a guidance counselor and explain how it was an accident that would never happen again and that no I didn’t have anything else.

      When I got back to class I found several students and the teacher going through my bag and looting my fireworks and holding my pocket knife and my house keys with the box blade in the key ring. Another trip to the counselor and vice principal ensued.

      I thought I was toast but I left there without so much as a call to my parents. I was allowed to pick up my bladed items and even my fireworks after school. They accepted that it was an honest mistake. No suspension, no detention and no cops. They weren’t needed to make an impression on me and I was never careless enough to take those items back to school.

      1. Great story. “…and that no I didn’t have anything else” made me laugh out loud. School used to be more fun.

  20. Welcome to thought crime.

    If controlling language controls a persons thoughts then controlling other forms of expressions such as play and art are just variations on that theme.

    The teachers at my kid’s school sincerely mean well, at least I believe they do, but they are still ruled by emotion over reason and their brains have been addled by doublethink and years of indoctrination.

  21. Mandatory minimum sentences are zero tolerance policies in the courts. Just as un-thinking and stupid. No wonder the U.S. has such an enormous prison population.

  22. I went to a high school, a half ass laid out, single floor, sprawling modern one. There was actually one two story section. They had a bit of a problem when thousands of kids were in the hallways during class changes, so they had some dumbass traffic scheme about which stairs to use, which side of the hallway to use, and shit like that. They had some dumb old cunt “monitor” or whatever enforce all this (who I deliberately egged on). It took them a few years to just try letting people go where they needed to go, at which point most of the problems went away. These idiots think too hard for the amount of logic they possess.

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