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Zero-tolerance policies are rules that respond to certain student misbehaviors with pre-determined consequences. Many times these regulations do not grant school officials the flexibility to tailor punishments in light of the circumstances surrounding a given incident.
The popularity of zero-tolerance policies grew during the 1990s as a response to society’s increased concern for school violence. After homicides committed at schools reached a high of fifty-four deaths in 1993, Congress passed the Gun-Free School Act of 1994. That piece of legislation reflected society’s turn towards “get-tough” policies in lieu of its traditional focus on rehabilitative measures. The Gun-Free School Act of 1994 conditioned a state’s receipt of federal funds for their public schools on their acceptance of regulations that required one-year minimum expulsions for students found in possession of firearms on school grounds.
In spite of their initial attempt to address offenses that posed serious dangers, however, zero-tolerance policies were subsequently expanded to include offenses that did not present similar threats. By 1998, the vast majority of public schools were utilizing zero-tolerance policies to address a wide range of topics, including alcohol and drugs. Infractions such as tardiness and dress-code violations are now also included within many of these regulations. The specific policies within zero-tolerance policies vary amongst jurisdictions today, but their continued use is fairly uniform.
Research has cast doubts over the ability of zero-tolerance policies to create a more efficient disciplinary process that helps deter school crime, however. Other criticisms include their inability to help improve academic achievement, deter offenders from future misconduct, and increase school safety ratings. Zero-tolerance policies are also viewed as a significant cause of the school-to-prison pipeline. In light of these findings, many jurisdictions have more recently begun to seek more effective alternatives.