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Understanding Zero Tolerance and Discretion

There are many problems that plague education, ones that have existed for years and have been ignored or simple considered a fact of life.


The wide spectrum of backgrounds from which students in the same school come, makes school the perfect stage to study the concept of zero tolerance and discretion. Zero tolerance is a creative and thoughtful way of dealing with crimes and offences, but it is not entirely practical. It is of uttermost concern that schools review its application. It is critically important for a crime to be handled in the same manner, regardless of who the offender might be. This is justice. However, the application of zero tolerance in absoluteness would mean trashing the different circumstances that surround a similar crime committed by two different people. Understanding zero tolerance in schools is critical to the integrity of teachers, to avoid situations that would depict them as unfair.

Understanding Zero Tolerance: a Focus on Schools

Zero tolerance emphasizes the need for absolute absence of discretion in exercising judgment (Researcher, 2009). The whole idea was noble, and it still is. It takes away the opportunity to exercise authority in favoritism. However, there is a dark side to it. When someone commits an offence, society subjects him or her to a trial. The whole idea is to determine whether the accused person is guilty and to further determine which punishment best suits him (Burger, Clifford & William, 2008). If it were possible to pronounce all judgments by the book, there would hardly be a need for trials in court.

However, there is hardly a crime whose fair judgment can be pronounced without the application of a considerable level of discretion on the judge’s part. In a social gathering such as school, there is usually a conflict to be solved. The issue could be about bullying, theft, absenteeism or any other infringement of school rules.

It makes sense that remarkably different circumstances surround these cases. A bullying case solved one day may take an utterly different form the next day. It behooves the teacher to exercise discretion in deciding which punishment to give. A relevant example is a case where zero tolerance is applied. One day, a student reports bullying by some other wayward student. The teacher decides that the offender is liable for a one-hour session of manual work, as punishment. The next day, it is reported that a student is beaten unconscious in another case of bullying. Zero tolerance would demand that all cases of bullying are treated with a punishment of equal severity. However, common sense points in the direction of a more severe punishment (Renee, 2002).

If zero tolerance were to be applied in perfection, it would require a detailed description of all offences that can be imagined under the sun. It would also require a corresponding detailed list of punishments for each recorded offence (Haron, 2012).

In all sincerity, this is not possible. Every day, new methods of doing things are discovered. The way people cheated in examinations in the last decade is not the same way they cheat today, but the fact that they cheat remains. It goes without saying that discretion would come in handy in making decisions on which punishments best suit individual crimes.

In conclusion, what the society needs is to develop policies that are fool proof, but leave room for discretion of judges in the society. It must be realized that this cannot be pulled off in a one off manner. It has to be developed by learning from mistakes and anticipating changes in the way things are done.

Burger, A. J., Clifford, W. K., & William, J. (2008). The ethics of belief. Seattle: Create Space.
Haron, F. (2012). Tuning the rig. Lanham: University Press of America.
Renee, E. (2002). Common sense, reasoning, and rationality. London: Oxford University Press.
Researcher, Q. C. (2009). Issues in K-12 education. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
Schneier, B. (2012, October 14). Retrieved October 14, 2012, from


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