Losing Tolerance for Zero Tolerance


Many years ago I found myself in a conflict with my principal when I advocated for one of my students in the face of the school’s zero tolerance policy. He was caught selling a necklace to another student. That was a punishable offense in and of itself. However, because this necklace had a charm in the shape of a dagger, instead of being considered jewelry, it was defined as a weapon. The student was liable to be expelled. This was absolutely ridiculous, but in some ways the principal’s hands were tied. Ultimately, we did find a compromise that kept the student in school. Of course, it helped that he had an active parent, a teacher who was willing to go to bat for him despite not having tenure and he was white.

There is a difference between discipline and intolerance. Tolerance is central to education. When school discipline switches from a didactic focus to a zero tolerance policy, the results can only be oppressive. This oppression almost always falls predominantly on our most marginalized populations. Over the years, zero tolerance policies have become the foundation of our school to prison pipeline.

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