When Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense: Kids Caught in the Middle

Patricia McGuireEditor’s note: Patricia McGuire, MD, FAAP, is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and published author. Her continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, titled Never Assume: Getting to Know Children Before Labeling Them, is scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT on May 9. This event, free to GoodTherapy.org members, is good for two CE credits. For details, or to register, please click here.

Jeremy is in the principal’s office again! He pushed another student down on the playground, and the recess monitor sent him in. He didn’t believe it was fair. Aaron had started it; he kept calling Jeremy names and blowing in his face. Even though he told Aaron to stop several times, this only caused Aaron to laugh and do it more. Jeremy tried to tell the recess monitor before it got bad but was told not to tattle. Finally, Jeremy felt he could take it no longer and pushed Aaron out of the way so he could leave. Jeremy felt that Aaron should be in the principal’s office too, but he knew it wouldn’t happen. They never listened to his side of the story.

Jeremy is a victim of the zero-tolerance policies of his school. Students are punished for any infraction of the rules, regardless of how it happened. It might have been an accidental mistake, ignorance of the rules, or even due to extenuating circumstances, as in Jeremy’s case. There are no exceptions to the policies.

In Jeremy’s case, it becomes even more complex. He has a behavioral improvement plan in place due to his attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) and anxiety. There are supposed to be safeguards in place to help him when other students tease or otherwise try to trigger a behavioral response from him. Unfortunately, these safeguards come in conflict with the zero-tolerance policy, so they are useless when the strategies he was taught don’t work.

Jeremy is in need of an advocate to help him have his needs heard and to create the exceptions needed to allow Jeremy to be successful. Therapists, parents, and doctors are great advocates when they know how to approach the administration. The first thing to document is that Jeremy is the victim of poly-victimization—a series of maltreatments that occur often—as described by the National Children’s Advocacy Center. First, there is Aaron, who is bullying Jeremy. Next is the recess monitor who labels him a tattler, which is demeaning. Finally, there is the zero-tolerance policy, which does not allow Jeremy to defend his reason for violating the rules, further causing him stress.

Next is to document if there are consistent offenders or a wide variety. Many children, like Jeremy, are targets of multiple children who find the excitement of getting another student upset or in trouble irresistible. Many adults tend to label these children negatively because of what is seen as inappropriate, over-the-top, or immature responses to situations. Because of Jeremy’s ADHD, he tends to be very reactive and impulsive. His anxiety affects his ability to inhibit responses due to a heightened fight-or-flight response.

There needs to be a meeting with all involved to understand Jeremy’s rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 due to his ADHD and anxiety. The school has already documented the issues with the institution of a behavioral improvement plan. The plan needs to be modified so that Jeremy can be assured that if he goes to an adult, his concerns will be taken seriously. They need to be addressed immediately, too, which in this case would have meant sending Aaron to the principal’s office for the bullying as soon as Jeremy reported it.

If it is documented, by Jeremy’s report and corroborating reports from others, that he has followed the strategies he was taught but they all failed to help him, there needs to be an assessment of how to improve the system in the future, not punish him.

Zero-tolerance policies were meant to address weapons, drugs, violence, and bullying. But if there is no discussion of why aggression took place—which may be seen as bullying by the administration—the victim may pay the price. Any child who is known to receive office referrals for behavior often needs to have the underlying reasons determined so that an appropriate plan can be put in place. Life is not a one-size-fits-all, and neither are children.

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  • Jamis


    April 18th, 2014 at 11:28 AM

    I understand that the rules were put in place to protect the children but it feels like there are times when they are taken too far and this gets out of control. If someone isn’t aware of the rules then how could they be punished? Or if someone else actually started it but this is the one who got caught, again how is this helping anything? I can see that there are probably times when this makes the most sense but there are other times thatkind of just make you scratch your head and wonder why.

  • rosa


    April 18th, 2014 at 2:48 PM

    I kind of feel like you have to draw the line somewhere, and you either have to do sometihng like three strikes and you’re out or zero tolerance. The three strikes rules give others a chance of getting hurt before there are any real consequences so why not stop the behavior before anyone gets hurt? I understand that there will be times when it will feel wrong, or that the end result seems so much bigger than the offense- but that’s the chance that I think that we have to take. We have to put our foot down somewhere, and better here before someone really gets hurt.

  • Aundi


    April 19th, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    While I can see het pros and the cons of this issue, you have to look out for the greater good in these instances and not just the one or two who are not benefitting from the policy.

    Overall I think that the policies have been put into place with the thought that this is the thing that will be the best for the student population as a whole, and while it may not feel that way for the one or two children whp seem to get singled out for their actions, I would rather have a few who are affected by it versus having an entire student population being harmed via their actions.

    So while it may not be the ultimate best answer, it is something that is working in a higher percentage of cases and I think that these are the numbers that have to be sonsidered.

  • Bradley


    April 19th, 2014 at 11:46 AM

    You can’t leave everything up to the zero tolerance plan. There needs to be some room for a little gray area, it can’t all be black and white all the time. What does this teach our students? That things will always be either one way or another? That there is no room for compromise? That’s not the way life is and well know it, but this isn’t the lesson that behaving this way is teaching them.

  • pediatricprofiler


    April 19th, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    I appreciate the conversation that is getting started based on my post. I understand the people who feel that there needs to be rules that are followed, but having worked with children for the last 30 years who fall through the cracks of the intent and the actuality of rules and policies I can tell you that their reasons need to be heard. Otherwise they become more and more resentful of being bullied and then punished for finally reacting/responding when no one was stopping the bully. It is well known that the children who get bullied most are the ones with special needs, who are struggling with life skills. They need support, protection, and help in developing skills that will provide them with self-advocacy. Unless we listen to where they are struggling, we can’t help them.

  • June


    April 21st, 2014 at 3:39 AM

    I agree with you on so many points, but at the same time I see these things from the school’s point of view too and realize that there are many times when their hands are tied as well.

    They have teachers, parents, and students from all sides who are advocating for change and who are wanting to have a safe envirmonment and there are of course millions of different suggestions for how to make this possibility.

    I think that there are many schools who are simply trying to make the best of the hand that they have been dealt and who are doing what they can to protect the most people at one time.’

    It is a difficult situation to say the least.

  • Louise


    April 22nd, 2014 at 2:58 AM

    There are rules that are really questionable especially when they involve children. Bullying is common in schools and zero tolerance should apply only to those who deserve it. In this situation, the victim is the one to suffer and that makes him more miserable.

  • Nina


    April 22nd, 2014 at 3:41 AM

    Kids really are caught between a rock and a hard place so many times at home and at school. They try to take up for themselves and not be a snitch but then when they get caught and the other child doesn’t it doesn’t seem quite fair that one child receives the punishment and the other does not. It kind of feels like those are the times when we are rewarding those who are sneaky because they are generally the ones who get away unscathed and the ones who are a little more obvious when they do fight back are the kids who take most of the consequences. I know that we as adults may not always be privy to all of the information but I think that we could at least make more of an effort to hear both sides of the story before automatically jumping to conclusions.

  • randy l

    randy l

    April 22nd, 2014 at 2:42 PM

    what ever happened to following the rules, and then that way you don’t have to even worry about the whole zero tolerance thing? follow the rules and that won’t apply to you

  • pediatricprofiler


    April 22nd, 2014 at 4:06 PM

    While I understand where you are coming from Randy, you are not necessarily taking in consideration the person who is the victim. What are the rules they are supposed to follow when they are being bullied, hurt, or otherwise victimized? I have too many children and adolescents who I work with who have either just taken it, or tried to report the situation only to be told to “deal with it” or not to “tattle.” This also applies to adult victims of abuse or harassment as much as it does for children. We live in an imperfect world. Why does the law say “Don’t kill” but it is okay to kill in war? We need to understand the “whys” of behavior in order to create order.

  • judy


    May 4th, 2014 at 8:15 PM

    We have experience with this. My 8 yr old has anxiety, triggered by the large social challenges that happen on the play ground. She often reports another student, that is known to be aggressive and mean, harassing her. When I ask if she gets an adult to help she is quite often told to “just avoid him”. She has gotten physical but thankfully her school is very realistic about the children and each child’s personality, development and challenges. There’s no doubt in another school we’d be dealing with lots of office time and potentially more. Thank you for bringing attention to this. We are so eager to address bullying that we forget its not as simple as zero tolerance.

  • Edmond


    April 23rd, 2014 at 7:15 AM

    I agree that there are times when zer tolerance does not work per se, but you also have to look at this from the point of view of administrators and teachers. Who is looking out for their safety and are concerned for their welfare? No one as we are most likely pointing the finger of blame at them and telling them more about how the job that they are doing is wrong instead of sometimes trying to look for the things that are right. None of us are without fault except for the occasiional person who gets caught in the middle. Let’s think about safety for all involved.

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