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'Zero Tolerance' Is No Substitute for Judgment

October 15, 2000|DAVID CROWLEY | David Crowley is a probation officer who resides in the San Fernando Valley

My 8-year-old son was recently suspended from school for a day. His offense? Possession of an illegal and dangerous explosive device.

That device was a firecracker that was given to him after school by a peer. He had possession of this potential hazard for all of two minutes before giving it to his best friend's mother who turned it in to the school office.

The following day, he was taken out of class at 11 a.m. He was interviewed by an administrator and school police. He remained in the office until 3 p.m. When his mother picked him up, he was visibly shaken. He did not eat much dinner that night and uncharacteristically wanted to go to bed early. He also complained of a stomachache. He had been under stress all day.

My son was disciplined under the Los Angeles Unified School District's zero tolerance policy.

I understand that policy in the following way: Immediate and decisive action is to follow certain dangerous activities. A student's possession of a weapon or controlled substance automatically results in suspension and perhaps other consequences. In this manner, the entire student body is both educated and protected. The clear message is sent: Violate these rules and face immediate penalties. So far, no objections.

This policy becomes unreasonable and draconian, however, when applied to more innocuous behavior, such as my son's. I agree that weapons, drugs and other forms of contraband have no place on a school campus. I would like to actively support the district in any reasonable policy that benefits the children.

Zero tolerance policies, on the other hand, can and do have adverse consequences that harm the children they are intended to protect. LAUSD is rightly concerned about limiting contraband at school and protecting the physical safety of children. I do not know, however, if anyone was concerned about the emotional or psychological safety of my son as he sat in an administrator's office for four hours. He was subjected to an emotional form of child abuse as he waited and wondered what would happen to him.

An 8-year-old should not be subjected to this kind of stress. Why was his mother not phoned earlier? Why a four-hour wait in the office? Why involve the school police? Why an automatic suspension the following day with no possibility of appeal?

My story is not an isolated one. Because of zero tolerance policies, there are many other examples. There was an instance in which a girl was suspended because she gave a cough drop to a friend: possession of and exchanging drugs. A seven-year-old boy gave a girl an unexpected kiss on the cheek: sexual harassment. Another boy received marijuana from a friend at school. He gave it to his parents who contacted the sheriff. He was suspended because he did not give it to a school official. Never mind common sense or valid explanations, the rules have been broken and certain responses are mandated.

Zero tolerance policies not only harm children, they demean teachers and administrators who are no longer needed to evaluate problems on a case-by-case basis. Common sense is rendered obsolete. Zero tolerance means that no one needs to think, exercise good judgment or rely on experience and maturity in making decisions.


Privately, some teachers and administrators have agreed with me. The man who suspended my son told me, "My hands are tied." There was no other decision he could have made without changing the system.

But some administrators do agree with the current zero tolerance policies. I find them frightening. The principal at my son's school told me that he agreed with the district's position. When I countered that such policies can harm children and show a distrust of adults, he replied, "Your son could have been expelled."

Who could argue with him? What my son did in receiving the firecracker was against the rules, potentially dangerous and illegal. Any similar infractions, such as accidentally bringing his pocketknife to school, could have very serious and lasting repercussions. Such an additional offense "could constitute a pattern," according to my son's principal.

The great failing of zero tolerance is that it does not discriminate; it cannot. There is no perceived difference between a cough drop and heroin, between a firecracker and a handgun.

My son is confused by the policies at school. He is realizing that the rules are different there than at home. He does not understand the hysterical reactions he sees. He does not know why his motives and intentions are disregarded at school but are viewed as critical at home. He is not capable of understanding a system that punishes children and offers no understandable explanations. I think he now understands that he is supposed to turn over any contraband directly to a school representative, but not a parent.


Zero tolerance has made my son afraid of the people he should trust. If he were now to come into contact with contraband, I believe he would run from it. It could be argued that in my son's case, the policy is working. But at what price?

It is my hope that my son will trust the authority figures who are charged to educate and guide him. Under the current system this hope is challenged and perhaps made impossible.

I am urging that the zero tolerance policies be amended and that teachers and administrators be empowered to exercise their good judgment and common sense on a case-by-case basis. Only then will children like my son be treated as individuals and with fairness.

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