Five years after Columbine - is zero tolerance working?

Jim | .General Topics | Friday, April 23rd, 2004

Five years on, Columbine offers lasting safety lessons

The most frequent question that I am asked about zero tolerance is if these policies are all because of Columbine. The simple answer is “yes and no”. There were zero tolerance policies in effect well before Columbine became a name known to everybody in America. Columbine was only five years ago, Congress passed its first federal zero tolerance mandates in 1990 (The Gun Free Schools Act of 1990 was later ruled unconstitutional). Another Gun-Free Schools Act was crafted in 1994. These federal policies and the state and local policies they mandated were already in effect when Klebold and Harris went on their murderous rampage in 1999 and they did absolutely nothing to stop the killers.

What Columbine did wasn’t to start the zero tolerance perfusion but to make these policies seem attractive to an unprecedented degree. Politicians were put on the spot to “stop school violence NOW”. Zero tolerance policies became a very popular method for politicians and administrators to show how dedicated and committed they were to solving the problem. Zero tolerance policies were adopted as quick fix, one size fits all solutions. Quite naturally they have failed abysmally.

National headlines were made when hapless students were expelled on drug charges for sharing a Midol tablet. Pink water pistols were suddenly weapons-grade. A faint air of ludicrousness began to surround zero tolerance. That’s unfortunate, says [Russell Skiba of Indiana’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy], because it detracts from the more critical issue.

“We have no evidence whatsoever that the use of zero tolerance has (succeeded),” says Skiba. “The data points the other direction. (These policies) have a negative effect. We see racial disparities we can’t explain. We see correlations between use of suspensions/expulsions and drop-outs, suspensions/expulsions and juvenile incarceration.”


It’s not difficult to see why these policies fail. Any time you intentionally tie your own hands you are going to have problems. A tough stance if fine (and it’s one I heartily approve of when it comes to safety in schools) but it must be tempered by conscious intelligence. Without the ability to show tolerance when and where it is appropriate we end up with administrators equivalent to bullies and schools equivalent to minimum security prisons.

Zero tolerance policies are not an effective deterrent to school violence and are direct contributors to juvenile delinquency and gross miscarriages of justice. If ZT isn’t the answer then what is?

“Columbine and its legacy certainly have implications on how we operate and respond to situations on campus,” says Acalanes principal John Nickerson. “You have a sense of things can go really awry if you don’t pay attention to the kids and any indicators given off. We’re much more cognizant of students in need, students reaching out, students who are mistreating other students.”

That solution carries far more weight with [Michael Pritchard, former Juvenile probation officer and current scholastic motivational speaker] than metal detectors and security gates. Pritchard spends his days on the road, talking to students about tolerance and bullying. The shooters at one school neatly bypassed their school’s $100,000 security system by passing weapons through the fence, he says.

“That’ll tell you just about all you need to know about those measures. We have to spend it on education and prevention,” says Pritchard. “We still continue to see levels of teasing and bullying and intolerance that lead to isolation — isolation with access to handguns.”

Education, prevention, paying attention to the students. That sounds quite a bit better than zero tolerance.

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