The Edmond Sun

September 9, 2013

Zero-tolerance policy may make problems worse

Paul Fairchild
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — I am a father of a student at Central Middle School. I, and other parents of students there, have an enormous stake in the success or failure of the Edmond Public School District’s Zero Tolerance policy for drugs. On Aug. 21, two Central students were suspended for allegedly abusing dextromethorphan (DXM), a common ingredient in more than a dozen over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. A third student was expelled for distributing it, according to the school district.

The American Psychological Association reports that zero tolerance policies, especially those that lack graduated consequences, fail. Since the widespread institution of zero tolerance, the statistics haven’t changed. The surveys come back the same every year. Eighty-one percent of 12th-graders have used alcohol, 65 percent have smoked, and 54 percent have experimented with illegal drugs. Those are big numbers, and a counter-claim that they’d be bigger if not for zero tolerance doesn’t have a lot of gravity.

The incident at Central Middle School is of the type that compelled Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a staunch proponent of zero tolerance, to note, “I’m terribly embarrassed when I read about these cases. These are examples of adults not exercising proper responsibility. I’m always in favor of just plain common sense.”

Feldman’s worried about the widespread destruction of students’ academic careers for minor offenses. She knows, like the rest of us, that sometimes good kids make mistakes. I can’t find any wisdom in setting a student’s education back a year for possession with intent to distribute cold medicine. Treat it like the adolescent curiosity it is. Dispense a punishment that fits the crime. And then hand out some serious education about drug abuse.

The National Association of School Psychologists warns: “Suspension and expulsion may set individuals who already display antisocial behavior on an accelerated course to delinquency by putting them in a situation in which there is a lack of parental supervision and a greater opportunity to socialize with other deviant peers.” I doubt these unfortunate middle schoolers fall into the unforgiving category of “deviant,” but the spirit of the argument is worth our attention.

In Salem, Ore., the school district transfers zero tolerance offenders to alternative schools where good behavior and drug education are emphasized along with academics. If a student follows the rules and shows some understanding of the dangers of drug abuse, they earn their way back into the regular school.

That’s one example of why overly strict zero tolerance policies fail and one example of how to make compassionate ones work. There are plenty more where those came from.

The underlying assumption of zero tolerance drug policies is a mistaken belief that harsh punishments will deter future drug abuse. Several reputable studies show, however, that students see drugs as qualitatively different. In other words, in their young minds, cold medicine has nothing to do with marijuana, which has nothing to do with cocaine, which has nothing to do with meth and so on. It’s why they take different drugs in different settings. A message about the dangers of hard drug abuse cannot be sent with a harsh punishment for abusing cold medicine.

If we’re going to do this zero tolerance thing, let’s do it right. There is no place in our schools for drugs. But when it comes to our kids, there’s also no place in our hearts for punishment that borders on vengeance.

PAUL FAIRCHILD is a freelance journalist. More of his writing may be found at his blog at