Is “Zero Tolerance” really worth it?


On first day of my eighth grade, there was a large fight before school started. I distinctly remember an administrator saying over the announcements the next morning that fighting during school, even as self defense, was not permitted. He also said that anyone involved in a fight would be severely punished.

I went home that afternoon and confronted my parents about what he had said. I was confused — why should a kid who is being pounded on, who didn’t do anything, who didn’t start the fight, be punished for protecting himself?

They explained to me the concept of the “Zero Tolerance” policy for fighting. I recently looked up the WCPSS policy to see if we used a “Zero Tolerance” policy.

The WCPSS handbook says “Physical aggression or fighting toward students and other people is prohibited. A student who is attacked may use reasonable force in self-defense, but only to the extent necessary to get free from the attack and notify proper school authorities.” Summed up, it’s expressing that a student can fight back to the point of getting help from a teacher or and administrator.

On paper, the “Zero Tolerance” policy looks great for many reasons.

One rationale for the policy, and the most emphasized part, is that it may prevent all fighting. If both sides know what punishments are in store, then they will not be tempted to start a fight in the first place.

However, the rule actually enables bullies to attack more freely. Stereotypical troublemakers typically don’t care about getting punished — the people being beat up, on the other hand, generally have more respect for the school’s policies and rules.

Thinking deeper into the subject, I’ve also come to the conclusion that “Zero Tolerance” is also enforced to prevent racism and discrimination. With the fine line between self-defense and fighting, the administrators have a big job to not upset any sides of the fight. If a minority student is punished for fighting and a non-minority student is left alone for claiming self-defense, fingers would be pointed at the school and the administrators for being racist and discriminating.

On the same path, “Zero Tolerance” is regulated to prevent teachers to have to make the decision whether a student fighting is self-defense or fighting. Anyone can claim self-defense, even if it’s not necessarily true, so the policy prevents the confusion and possible misinterpretation of the situation. By punishing both sides of the fight, no miscommunications are made, whether it’s fair or not.

Obviously, “Zero Tolerance” also has negatives. First off, if a kid is wailed on by someone who we presume is a bully, then it’s most likely that the student will not be able to escape for trouble. If the kid is being ganged up on, what would happen? If he fought back but still didn’t manage to get the attention of a teacher or administrator, the student would be punished.

Compared to the small world of our high school, though, society’s ethics and laws recognizes self-defense as morally correct. North Carolina’s “Castle Law” on self defense states that a person has certain rights and immunities on their own property and in certain circumstances may violence to defend against an intruder if they feel threatened.

Does this law apply to schools if we considered one’s body as personal property? Under “Zero Tolerance”, it seems the answer is no. Of course, the line between self defense and fighting will forever be hazy until someone creates a solution.

But will anything make the line clear?


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