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Zero Tolerance


The policy of applying laws or penalties to even minor infringements of a code in order to reinforce its overall importance and enhance deterrence.

Since the 1980s the phrase zero tolerance has signified a philosophy toward illegal conduct that favors strict imposition of penalties regardless of the individual circumstances of each case. Zero tolerance policies deal primarily with drugs and weapons and have been implemented by most school districts in the United States. Two federal laws have driven zero tolerance but state legislatures have also been willing to mandate similar policies. Supporters of zero tolerance policies contend that they promote the safety and well-being of school children and send a powerful message of deterrence. In addition, supporters believe strict adherence to these polices ensures that school officials do not treat individual children differently. Critics of zero tolerance believe that inflexible discipline policies produce harmful results. Moreover, school administrators have failed to use common sense in applying zero tolerance, leading to the expulsion of children for bringing to school such items as an aspirin or a plastic knife.

The term zero tolerance was first employed by President ronald reagan's administration when it launched its War on Drugs initiative in the early 1980s. Some school districts embraced the initiative in an attempt to eradicate drug possession and drug use on school property. The policy became law, however, when Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Act of 1989 (Pub.L. 101-226, December 12, 1989, 103 Stat. 1928). The act banned the unlawful use, possession, or distribution of drugs and alcohol by students and employees on school grounds and college campuses. It required educational agencies and institutions of higher learning to establish disciplinary sanctions for violations or risk losing federal aid. As a result, the majority of schools and colleges immediately began to adopt zero tolerance polices to safeguard their federal funding.

Congress legislated zero tolerance polices toward weapons on school grounds when it passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 (Pub. L. 103-382, Title I, ยง 101, October 20, 1994, 198 Stat. 3907). According to the act, every state had to pass a law requiring educational agencies to expel from school, for not less than one year, any student found in possession of a gun. Students with disabilities under either the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) (Pub.L. 91-230, Title VI, April 13, 1970, 84 Stat. 175 to 188) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Pub.L. 93-112, September 26, 1973, 87 Stat. 355) could be expelled for only 45 days. Despite these strict provisions, the act permitted school superintendents to modify the expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis.

This federal law was the catalyst for school zero tolerance policies that soon went beyond drugs and weapons to include hate speech, harassment, fighting, and dress codes. School principals, who must administer zero tolerance policies, began to suspend and expel students for seemingly trivial offenses. Students have been suspended or expelled for a host of relatively minor incidents, including possession of nail files, paper clips, organic cough drops, a model rocket, a five-inch plastic ax as part of a Halloween costume, an inhaler for asthma, and a kitchen knife in a lunch box to cut chicken. Outraged parents of children disciplined by zero tolerance policies protested to school boards, publicized their cases with the news media, and sometimes filed lawsuits in court seeking the overturning of the discipline. Courts generally have rejected such lawsuits, concluding that school administrators must have the ability to exercise their judgment in maintaining school safety.

One study, however, issued by the Advancement Project in 2000, suggested that zero tolerance, while supposedly a neutral policy, was applied disproportionately to students of color. Such concerns led the american bar association (ABA) in 2001 to pass a resolution opposing, in principle, zero tolerance policies that (1) have a discriminatory effect, or (2) set forth mandatory punishment without regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense, or the student's history. The ABA concluded that such "one-size-fits-all" policies violate students' due process rights. Although the organization urged schools to maintain strong prevention policies, it also wanted to ensure that students' rights were protected when they were disciplined.

Despite the backlash, zero tolerance has remained a central part of school administration. In particular, zero tolerance for weapons has been a top priority due, in part, to a string of school shootings, which culminated in the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado. Some school administrators have turned to zero tolerance policies because they need to respond swiftly and decisively in order to maintain control and discipline. They contend that such polices can be communicated clearly and forcefully to students so they understand that discipline will be immediate and predictable. Finally, another reason for school administrators to embrace zero tolerance policies is legal liability. A school that does not enforce a zero tolerance policy risks a civil lawsuit by victims of school violence.

further readings

American Bar Association: Criminal Justice Section. 2001. Report on Zero Tolerance. Available online at <www.abanet.org/crimjust/juvjus/zerotolreport.html> (accessed August 27, 2003).

Ayers, William, Bernardine Dohrn, and Rick Ayers, eds. 2001. Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment. New York: New Press.

Skiba, Russell J., and Gil G. Noam, eds. 2002. Zero Tolerance: Can Suspension and Expulsion Keep Schools Safe? New York: Jossey-Bass.


Schools and School Districts; Three Strikes Laws.

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Zero Tolerance


The phrase has come to be associated with government and private employer policies that mandate predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses. However, the phrase first became associated with U.S. drug interdiction during the 1980s and 1990s. Most public schools now have zero tolerance policies for firearms, weapons other than firearms, alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Zero tolerance policies generally are rigid and can produce results that appear out of proportion to the improper behavior. Nevertheless, the courts have endorsed drug-testing programs that allow employers to enforce zero tolerance policies.


Zero tolerance was a federal drug policy initiated during the War on Drugs campaign of the Reagan and Bush administrations (1981-1993). Under this policy, which was designed to prohibit the transfer of illicit drugs across U.S. borders, no possession, import, or exportation of illicit drugs was tolerable, and possession of any measurable amount of illicit drugs was subject to all available civil and criminal sanctions. Zero tolerance was an example of a criminal justice approach to drug control. Under such an approach, the control of drugs rests within the domain of the criminal justice system, and the use of drugs is regarded as a criminal act, with legal sanction as the consequence.

Zero tolerance is a "user-focused" strategy of drug control, according to which law-enforcement agents target users of illicit drugs as opposed to dealers or transporters. The rationale for this approach is that the users of illicit substances create the demand for drugs and constitute the root cause of the drug problem. If, therefore, demand for drugs can be curbed by exacting harsh penalties on users, the supply of drugs into the country will slow.

The zero-tolerance policy was initiated by the U.S. Customs Service, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney's office in San Diego, California, as part of an effort to stop drug trafficking across the U.S.-Mexican border. Individuals in possession of illicit drugs were arrested and charged with both a misdemeanor and a felony offense. Customs Service officials believed the policy to be successful at reducing the flow of drugs across the border and recommended that it be implemented nationwide. Subsequently, the National Drug Policy Board, in conjunction with the White House Conference on a Drug-Free America had all federal drug-enforcement agencies implement zero tolerance in 1988, at all U.S. points of entry (United States Congress, 1988).

The policy did not involve enacting new laws or regulations; it only entailed instituting strict interpretation and enforcement of existing laws. In practice, it meant that any type of vehicleincluding bicycles, transfer trucks, and yachtswould be confiscated and the passengers arrested upon the discovery of any measurable amount of illicit drugs. The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs Service began to crack down on all cases of drug possession on the water and at all borders. If, during the course of their regular patrols and inspections, Coast Guard personnel boarded a vessel and found one marijuana cigarette, or even the remnants of a marijuana cigarette, they arrested the individual and seized the boat. Before this policy was instituted, the Coast Guard had either looked the other way or issued fines when "personal-use" quantities of illicit substances were discovered (United States Congress, 1988).

Zero tolerance was criticized because federal agencies expended substantial resources to identify individual drug users instead of concentrating their resources on halting the influx of major quantities of drugs into the country for street sale. The policy of seizing boats upon the discovery of trace amounts of drugs was also controversial. Some believed the policy to be an unfair and unusually harsh punishment; seizing a commercial boat that was the sole source of income for an individual or family was denounced as being too severe a penalty for possession of "one marijuana cigarette." There were some highly publicized cases of commercial fishing boats being seized on scant evidence that the boat owner was responsible for the illicit drugs found.


The term zero tolerance has a broader application than the Reagan-Bush drug interdiction approach. Zero tolerance describes a perspective on drug use according to which it is maintained that the use of any amount of illicit drugs is harmful to the individual and society and that the goal of drug policy should be to prohibit any and all illicit drug use. According to the contrasting viewpoint, the simple use of drugs is distinguishable from problem drug use and although absence of all drug use is desirable, the resources of government would be used more efficiently if they targeted individuals who demonstrated problem use or if they addressed problems related to or caused by illicit drug use.

Drug testing in the workplace typically uses a zero tolerance approach. In the late 1970s, employees challenged these policies in the courts. However, the U.S. Supreme Court, in New York City Transit Authority v. Beazer, 440 U.S. 568, 99 S.Ct. 1355, 59 L.Ed.2d 587 (1979), ruled that a city agency's blanket exclusion of persons who regularly use narcotic drugs did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This zero tolerance decision subsequently has been extended to various employment situations. By 2000, many employers routinely required a drug test as part of the employee hiring process. Applicants who failed the test usually are not hired because employers use a zero tolerance drug policy.

Zero tolerance policies have become a standard part of U.S. public schools. With the rash of school shootings in the 1990s, zero tolerance weapons policies have dominated the news, yet zero tolerance drug polices are also part of school rules. Zero tolerance has widespread public support, as it mandates high standards and signifies a "get tough" attitude toward drugs and school violence. Nevertheless, there are many critics of zero tolerance polices. Critics analogize zero tolerance to mandatory minimum sentencing in the criminal justice system. Under both schemes there are no exceptions made for individual circumstances; this results in punishments that appear excessive, such as a student suspension for bringing aspirin to school without permission.

(See also: Drug Interdiction ; Operation Intercept ; U.S. Government: The Organization of U.S. Drug Policy )


United States Congress. House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation. (1988). "Zero Tolerance" drug policy and confiscation of property: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries (House of Representatives, 100th Congress, 2nd session). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Curwin, R.L. &Mendler, A. N. (1999). Zero tolerance for zero tolerance. Phi Delta Kappan 81, 119.

Amy Windham

Revised by Frederick K. Grittner

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WINDHAM, AMY; GRITTNER, FREDERICK K.. "Zero Tolerance." Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. (September 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3403100481.html

WINDHAM, AMY; GRITTNER, FREDERICK K.. "Zero Tolerance." Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior. 2001. Retrieved September 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3403100481.html

zero tolerance

zero tolerance See BROKEN WINDOWS THESIS.

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