Jewish World Review Nov. 26, 2003 / 1 kislev 5764

Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Zero Patience for Zero Tolerance | News shows recently showed video of 14 police officers charging a crowded high-school corridor with guns drawn in a drug sweep. Students at Stratford Creek High School in Goose Creek, S.C., were forced onto their knees or against walls, while dogs sniffed their backpacks for drugs.

None were found. Although the incident was extreme, it was not an aberration but the logical consequences of "zero tolerance" policies, defended by both the school and the police. Zero tolerance must be abandoned, especially in connection with children.

Zero-tolerance policies have resulted in some children being placed in the criminal justice system. Two examples currently in the news: A Missouri judge ruled that a 6-year-old boy suspected of killing his grandfather could be charged as an adult; a New Jersey prosecutor's office has charged a 7-year-old boy with molesting a 5-year-old girl in an incident that the defense attorney describes as "playing doctor."

For most children, zero tolerance is experienced in schools with administrative rules that purportedly enforce safety and discipline. Arguably, the administrative rules are actually a reaction to federal threats to cut funds. For example, in 1994 Congress passed the Gun-Free School Act by which states had to implement zero tolerance on weapons or lose federal money. Many schools rigorously interpreted zero tolerance to include the prohibition of anything even looking like a weapon. They adopted broad definitions of dangerous behavior, which allowed for no exceptions.

Soon the media spilled over with stories of young children being suspended or treated like felons for playing with water pistols, paper guns or even for pointing their fingers at each other and saying "bang."

Donate to JWR

The punishment for possessing an obvious toy became the same as for possessing a real weapon because zero tolerance means zero distinctions. Zero tolerance takes discretion and evaluation away from educators and mandates responses that can be wildly inappropriate. Behavior that used to be corrected by detention or a trip to the principal's office now receives suspension, expulsion or even police involvement. What used to be the last resort has become the first and only option.

In Madison, Wis., Chris Schmidt, a sixth-grader with a spotless record, faced a year's suspension because he brought a kitchen knife to school for a science project. Asked about the case, Valencia Douglas, an assistant superintendent of schools in Madison, said, "We can't say, 'You're a good kid, so your mistake doesn't have as much force, or importance behind it.'"

And so, an 11-year-old is taken away in handcuffs for drawing a picture of a gun; an 8-year-old faces expulsion for a keychain that contained a cheap nail clipper; a fifth-grader is suspended for drawing the World Trade Center being hit by an airplane ... The stories go on and on.

The quantity of these incidents illustrates that the vicious consequences of zero tolerance are not isolated events. They are embedded into one of the most important institutions of society: the educational system. When the school principal in Goose Creek justified police pointing guns at innocent students, he did so by saying he would use "any means" to keep his school "clean."

A backlash is developing among students who are reportedly saying the same thing nationwide. Many schools now resemble prisons with hidden security cameras, metal detectors, guards, random searches, drug-sniffing dogs, and searches without warrants.

Zero tolerance is commonly justified on the grounds of children's safety. But, in studying "unsafe" schools that had enforced zero-tolerance policies for four years, the National Center for Education Statistics found little change (Skiba & Peterson, 1999).

In commenting on the study in the journal "National Association of Elementary School Principals," Roger W. Ashford wrote, "The study concludes, however, that even though there is little data to prove the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies, such initiatives serve to reassure the public that something is being done to ensure safety. Therefore, the popularity of zero-tolerance policies may have less to do with their actual effect than the image they portray of schools taking harsh measures to prevent violence. Whether the message actually changes student behavior may be less important than the reassurance it provides to administrators, teachers and parents."

Everyone recognizes that zero-tolerance policies were developed in response to legitimate concerns, such as those raised by the high-school shootings at Columbine. But, increasingly, people are also recognizing that zero tolerance creates as many -- and perhaps more -- problems than the original difficulties they were meant to solve.

Alternatives are being suggested. For example, Richard L. Curwin and Allen N. Mendler have co-authored a book entitled "As Tough as Necessary: Countering Aggression, Violence, and Hostility in Schools" (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999). They advocate a wide range of responses to school violence, which depend upon an evaluation of the circumstances surrounding each incident. The responses include "counseling, restitution, behavioral planning, behavior rehearsal, suspension with training or educational experience, and police referral."

Another alternative is homeschooling.

There is little evidence that zero tolerance produces safety. Instead, it strips away the safeguards of a peaceful society: compassion, due process, good will, presumption of innocence, tolerance, discretion, humor ... It victimizes the most vulnerable citizens: children.

Every weekday publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Wendy McElroy is the editor of She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada. Comment by clicking here.


10/22/03: Killing the Good Samaritan
10/08/03: Collective western guilt burdens today's children
10/01/03: Families pay price for government spending
09/24/03: Do Poor Fathers Deserve Debtors' Prison?
08/29/03: Going to extremes
08/23/03: The Marriage Strike
07/30/03: University Students Deserve Human Rights
07/09/03: The PCspeak of Diversity
07/02/03: Rebuttable presumption of joint custody
06/18/03: A Conscientious Objector to the Gender War
06/04/03: Gender issues impacted by masculinists
05/28/03: The value of error
05/21/03: U.S. to Fund Gender Feminism in Africa?
05/14/03: Cut men: Do they not bleed?
05/07/03: Women with guns fight back
04/30/03: No oil for food
04/28/03: The Great Lie
04/16/03: War may redefine gun control
04/09/03: Why we must discuss a post-war U.S.
04/02/03: Leftist feminists using war as podium
03/26/03: Laying down 'the white woman's burden'
03/19/03: Iraq War may kill feminism as we know it
03/13/03: A woman to replace Saddam
02/19/03: Elder abuse demands family solutions
02/13/03: Iraqi women brutalized by Saddam
01/29/03: There ought not to be a law
01/22/03: Gambling with race and gender cards
01/02/03: The future of fatherhood
12/26/02: U.N. complicit in forced sterilizations
12/20/02: Compassion, kindness killed by fear, paranoia
12/11/02: Affirmative action insults immigrant contributions
12/04/02: Stand up for yourself
11/27/02: Feminist fighting: Aren't we all women?
11/20/02: Rights & responsibilities
11/14/02: Feminist "urban legends"
11/06/02: Equal access does not guarantee equal outcome
10/24/02: Battered Women's Syndrome: Science or sham?
10/17/02: I demand a civil society that respects the individual and acknowledges the existence of honest disagreement between human beings of good will
10/09/02: Abortion debate is about to be ratcheted up yet again
10/02/02: 'Restorative justice' offers battered women more options
09/25/02: Why is prez promising to embrace UN radical social engineering programs?
09/18/02: Dirty dealings kill men's panel
09/11/02: Taking back your power
09/05/02: Calm down, Hootie!
08/21/02: Will Congress empower a group of radical feminists to oversee money slated for Afghan women?
08/14/02: Empower the U.N. with power to sculpt American laws and institutions into the image of gender feminism!?
08/01/02: Practicing 'intellectual virtue'
07/24/02: All male, bad. All female, good: Your tax dollars at work
07/11/02: Put Up or Shut Up
07/03/02: NOW they've done it, again!
06/19/02: A dark cloud shades U.N. Women's Treaty
06/10/02: This Father's Day, send justice
05/31/02: When good women do nothing
05/28/02: Feminists claiming motherhood as liberal cause
05/20/02: Wounds in health care system are self-inflicted: Or, why "my son the lawyer" makes more sense
05/10/02: Are parents boycotting public schools?
05/03/02: Women can't be gun-shy about defense
04/25/02: The Bill of Intellectual Rights
04/19/02: World Bank or World Government?: The World Bank is blackmailing impoverished nations
04/12/02: Victims From Birth: Engineering Defects in Helpless Children Crosses the Line
04/05/02: The professor made me cry, now I will make him pay!
03/31/02: Doctors and teens --- parents be on guard
03/22/02: I was born, now I'm suing you!
03/15/02: The 21st Century is knocking at the barricaded door of feminism
03/08/02: Fun and games at the Ms mag Bulletin Board
03/01/02: Andrea Yates, NOW, and Feminist Jurisprudence
02/22/02: Lady, Your Slip is Showing
02/14/02: 'Abusing' Valentine's Day
02/11/02: Is NOW Pro-Choice or Pro-Abortion?
02/01/02: Are 'fathers' rights' a factor in male suicide?
01/25/02: Is the U.N. Running Brothels in Bosnia?
01/18/02: 'Freedom' at another's (moral) expense
01/11/02: Feminists hit Ground Zero with WTC funds grab
01/04/02: Males winning "diversity discrimination" cases is good?
12/21/01: Good will toward men
12/14/01: "Boss Tweed" feminism
12/07/01: Call me 'anti-woman'

© 2001, Wendy McElroy