By the time Tiffanie Huntley arrived at her son Bryan's school, the police were already there. She remembers how tiny and bewildered the 5-year-old looked sitting in a big chair surrounded by grown-ups.
The suburban Denver mom of six had gotten a phone call that morning from the principal saying that she and her husband, Kent, needed to come quickly: Their kindergartner had brought a weapon to school.
"A what?" Huntley thought to herself. "That's not possible."
But it was true -- sort of. Bryan had found a mini Swiss Army knife in the family's camping gear and tucked it into his front pocket. His fingers weren't even strong enough to pry open the 1-inch blade. But when he showed the knife to some friends at Vanderhoof Elementary, a teacher spotted it and whisked him to the principal, Tria Dassler, who then phoned the police. When Bryan's parents asked Dassler why such a drastic step had been necessary, she explained that it was a requirement. (Lynn Setzer, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson County school district, confirmed that Dassler had correctly followed the district's policy, which mandates that police must be contacted for any weapons possession, regardless of a child's age or the circumstances). Huntley says the principal suspended Bryan for the rest of the day and suggested he should have known better. "But he didn't know better," she says, still tearful at the memory three years later. "He was 5."
What may sound like an isolated incident caused by an irrational overreaction is, in fact, a common occurrence today. An estimated 94 percent of public schools have a zero-tolerance policy in place to address not just weapons possession but also drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Many districts have expanded the mandatory predetermined punishments to include behavioral infractions, which are acted upon swiftly and severely, even for kindergartners. These can range from an in-school suspension (in which a child learns separately from other students), to an out-of-school suspension, to automatic expulsion for a year.
The consequences of this policy have been disruptive to the learning process, to say the least. Children of all ages are being suspended in staggering numbers, often for offenses that might have been resolved by a parent conference or detention. The Civil Rights Project, a research organization at UCLA, reports that 3.3 million kids in grades K-12 are suspended and 102,000 are expelled each year.
But recently, the idea of zero tolerance has been coming under widespread attack. Parents whose kids were penalized worry how a policy that removes them from the classroom will impact their learning. Child-development experts argue that the inflexible policies should be eliminated or at least softened given the fact that kids will be, well, kids, and they often make mistakes due to ignorance or immaturity that may not warrant serious punishment. Children's advocates emphasize that kids who have been suspended tend to develop a negative attitude toward school and are at increased risk for dropping out. So even if a punishment is short-term, the impact on a young kid's future can be devastating. "Zero-tolerance school-discipline approaches have gone way beyond where they started, as principals and teachers have used them to punish nonviolent behaviors that don't pose any threat to students," says Patti Hassler, vice president of communications and outreach for the nonprofit Children's Defense Fund.
No single event sparked what eventually evolved into zero tolerance in schools. The catchphrase likely grew out of the swift and automatic punishment for drug offenders established in the late 1980s. Schools began to adopt a similar philosophy toward discipline as educators and communities became increasingly concerned about violence. Then, with the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which requires public schools to expel any student caught with a firearm, it became national policy. Over time, many districts and individual schools have broadened their zero-tolerance polices to include minor infractions, such as disruptive behavior and persistent tardiness. In California, there were 700,000 K-12 suspensions during the 2010-11 school year (the most recent data available). Of those, 42 percent of the infractions fell under the murky label of "willful defiance," such as failing to complete homework and refusing to take off a hat or coat when asked, notes Roger Dickinson, a Sacramento assemblyman who is fighting to revamp zero-tolerance policies. One study found that 95 percent of all out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect.
Zero tolerance also skirts our nation's long-standing legal tradition of due process. "It punishes children without assessing their intent or the circumstances surrounding an offense," says Robert Schwartz, former chair of the American Bar Association's Commission on Youth at Risk. One recent example: An 8-year-old boy who made a gun signal with his thumb and index finger was suspended in Harmony, Florida, last fall -- even though he was playing an innocent game of cops and robbers in the schoolyard with friends.