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#KeepingUpWithTheTimes: Failures of Federal Zero Tolerance Policies

Published in Journal of Law & Education  

The federal government first applied zero tolerance (ZT) disciplinary policies in elementary and Secondary public schools both as an expan­sion of drug control legislation of the 1980s and in response to a string of tragic school shootings in the early 1990s. In compliance with the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), school districts across the nation instituted complete bans on firearms. The legislation both required and incentivized weapons bans by offering federal funding to states that increased safety in their school districts. Although the only federally mandated ZT ban was on firearms, most states also mandated ZT for “weapons other than firearms,” which in some cases included water guns, nail clippers, and toys. Since then, many school districts have expanded ZT policies to include bans on truancy, drug, tobacco and alcohol use, disrespect, disruption, or noncompliance. Many praise these policies for effectively prioritizing discipline and instituting con­sistent and fair penalties that deter unacceptable behaviors and make schools safer. However, as one teacher stated, “[ZT] throws common sense out the window and that’s its defect. We all know in education one size never fits all.”

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