MICHIGAN STATE (US)—Efforts to address gun violence in schools by establishing zero-tolerance policies have failed to make students feel safe, a new study shows.

Zero tolerance has become plagued by inconsistent enforcement and inadequate security, says Laura McNeal, assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University. As a result, the very students the policy was designed to protect overwhelmingly say it is ineffective.

“Zero-tolerance policy represents what happens when there is a disconnect between law on the books and law in action,” McNeal says.  “We need to reform existing policies such as zero tolerance to ensure every child receives a high-quality education in a safe and supportive learning environment.”

McNeal and Christopher Dunbar Jr., associate professor of educational administration, interviewed and collected data from above-average students at 15 urban high schools in the Midwest.

While much has been written about students punished under zero tolerance, this study is one of the first to bring in the voices of well-behaved students, the researchers say. Details of the study appear in the journal Urban Education.

Zero tolerance is a result of a 1994 federal law that requires all states receiving federal money to require school districts to expel for at least one year any student found to have brought a weapon to school.

School districts across the nation installed zero-tolerance policies that sometimes went further—expelling students for cursing, defiant behavior, and bringing over-the-counter medications to school, for examples.

The surveyed students say zero tolerance is rife with problems, including too few security guards; security guards who are underpaid, lazy or corrupt; nonworking metal detectors; and administrators who show favoritism.

To address the problem, McNeal and Dunbar recommend:

  • Creating a non-biased approach to zero tolerance by establishing a universal handbook that clearly defines what constitutes a violation and the appropriate punishment.
  • Improving security, including hiring school security guards with professional training and paying them appropriately.

Dunbar says students in the study actually favor a zero-tolerance policy—but only if it is fair and effective.

“How can children be expected to excel,” he says, “in an environment that promotes trepidation and high anxiety due to safety concerns?”

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