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Zero Tolerance

Zero Tolerance

11 January, 2016

In the United States and Canada, zero tolerance policies are implemented in schools and other education venues. These have been proven to be controversial in that some of those penalized have claimed that their treatment is egregiously biased.

A zero-tolerance policy is a policy of having very minimal tolerance for transgressions: any infraction of existing laws and regulations will be punished, regardless of how small it is. The term may be used in general or with reference to a particular category of transgressions, e.g. a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol use.

It is commonly enacted by an organization (usually a school) against a particular action, or possession of something on organization-controlled property. Many schools have a zero-tolerance policy concerning drugs or weapons. For example, a student possessing or caught using drugs on school property governed by a zero-tolerance policy could immediately suffer the highest possible consequence for their actions. Many organizations avoid these policies because it binds those in authority to an action, regardless of circumstances. The policy must be written extremely explicitly or it may have negative consequences.

As of 2004 many publicized cases have sparked slight controversy with regards to (at least what some perceive as) irrationality of the policies. These cases involve students being suspended or expelled for transgressions such as carrying Advil (a legal, non-prescription drug) in backpacks, keeping pocketknives (small utility knife) in cars, and carrying sharp tools outside of a “wood shop” classroom (where they are often required materials). In some jurisdictions, zero-tolerance policies have come into conflict with freedom of religion rules already in place allowing students to carry, for example, kirpans.

Most policies were passed after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. One well documented case took place in the Ashland, Oregon School district.


Advocates of zero tolerance policies claim that such policies are asked to create an appropriate environment. They also point to examples of persons in authority providing lax discipline in the past, with a resulting breakdown in order (for example, in a school environment).

Some supporters also argue that the mass publicizing of examples of unfairness serves the schools’ purpose by frightening students into conformity. They point to the millions of student acts and omissions each and every school day, only a small percentage of which prove to be unjustly penalized.

The utilitarian policy assumption is that inflexibility is a deterrent because, no matter how or why the rule was broken, the fact that the rule was broken is the basis for the imposition of the penalty. This is intended as a behavior modification strategy, i.e. because those at risk know that it may operate unfairly, they may be induced to take even unreasonable steps to avoid breaking the rule. This is a standard policy in rule- and law-based systems around the world on “offenses” as minor as traffic violations to major health and safety legislation for the protection of employees, those living nearby and the environment.

People opposing zero tolerance policies frequently refer to cases where minor offenses have resulted in severe punishments (see above and , for example, Zero Tolerance Nightmares. Typical examples include the honor-roll student being expelled from school under a “no weapons” policy while in possession of nail clippers; or a distinguished longtime employee at a company who, despite an impeccable work record and compiling many honors, losing his job because he made a seemingly innocent remark to a female co-worker (e.g., “You look nice today”).

However, some view zero tolerance policies as a mean to fight corruption. Under this argument, if subjective judgment is not allowed, most attempts by the authority person to encourage bribes and/or other favors in exchange for leniency are clearly visible.

Some might argue that having a set of strict rules serves as a way to limit the powers of the person doing enforcement, ensuring equal treatment for everyone. However, the evidence is that minority children are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of zero tolerance.

Such policies could conceivably be established to allow unchecked freedom for officers; in such cases the rules could be intentionally self-contradicting, unclear and/or otherwise impossible or implausible to obey.