Zero Tolerance in public schools is meant to deter unwanted behavior and send clear, consistent messages about violence. So far, so good, right? The problem comes when a teen is recommended to be suspended for a year — you read that right — for forgetting something in her locker.

Minnesota teen Alyssa Drescher was suspended for forgetting something in her locker. That something was a pocket knife and that suspension was recommended to be a year long. Have Zero Tolerance rules gone a little too far? We spoke with Alyssa the day after her missed-because-of-suspension prom and took a peek at the 6,600 people (and counting) that are supporting her cause.

History lesson

Zero Tolerance policies in the U.S. became widespread in 1994 after federal legislation required states to expel any student who brought a firearm to school for one year or lose all federal funding. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) defines Zero Tolerance as consistently enforced suspension and expulsion policies in response to weapons, drugs and violent acts in the school setting.

Shannon Duffy is a former teacher, a current writer and a mother of two teens and a tween. Duffy says, "As a teacher, I think Zero Tolerance policies are put into effect to guarantee clarity, consistency and fairness, and I see their worth in that respect. I would say that administrators and school officials feel the need for Zero Tolerance in some cases to eliminate bias and to have solid policies in place to fall back on when problems occur."

Work avoidance

We can all see the benefits of consistent, clear expectations. The Zero Tolerance policy in schools mirrors other laws: if we break them, there are consequences. But even in the grand scale, law breaking doesn't have the one size fits all repercussions that schools are trying to enforce with Zero Tolerance. This policy reeks of schools trying to avoid having to do the hard work of a "trial." But this concept is so very fallible. These are kids. And we're punishing them within the system that's set up to teach them. Not to mention that they can't really learn from their own mistakes if they're out of school for 12 months.

Defective policies

Adults value the examples made in cases like these. No other teen would dare make this mistake, right? Shannan Ball Younger writes the Tween Us blog on ChicagoNow, a site that explores the world of kids ages 8 to 12, the tween years and the challenges that come with parenting them because, as she says, the space between playing with trucks and driving them can be difficult for both kids and parents. Younger says, "I think Zero Tolerance rules can be good because of the consistency they bring... If [the administration] is looking to put kids on notice that such behavior is unacceptable, then that mission is accomplished." But is it really fair to make an example of one kid in a way that affects her entire future? And, importantly, is it effective?

We, as adults, would have a difficult time living with Zero Tolerance policies because we are human and we make mistakes.

Duffy says, "As the parent of teenagers, I understand the need for consistency in enforcing rules. However, I feel that this consistency has to be accompanied by reason and flexibility. We, as adults, would have a difficult time living with Zero Tolerance policies because we are human and we make mistakes. Can I expect an infallibility in a 17-year-old that I, as a 40-year-old, can't maintain? I know this situation is inflamed because it involves a weapon and I understand that the school felt the need to punish this student. The severity of that punishment and the implications it holds for her future are what I question."

Many have pointed out that the purpose of Zero Tolerance isn't to keep kids' records clean. And at first blush, you might be nodding. But when we remember that this is a school setting, shouldn't the goals — at least partly — be to keep our kids' records clean and their learning at the forefront?

Lesson {not really} learned

When asked, 17-year-old Madeline said, "I'm a junior in high school, and I’ve remembered thousands of homework assignments, hundreds of history facts and countless appointments. Yet, sometimes I forget to bring my calculator or turn off my phone before class. Forgetting to take a pocket knife out of a purse in the morning, though more serious, is just as easy to do. Zero Tolerance asks for perfection and perfection is impossible."

When looking at how teens — the ones who are supposed to be learning from Drescher's example — view her consequence, I have to wonder if Zero Tolerance has the effect it's meant to.

Alyssa's story

The important thing to note here is that the story behind the student does matter and should affect the severity of the consequence.

Zero tolerance- Alyssa Drescher

On Tuesday, April 15, 2014, Drescher's school went into a random lockdown for a K-9 drug search. The drug dogs hit on the perfumes and lotions in her locker and as a result found Alyssa's forgotten pocket knife in her locker. Drescher threw the pocket knife into her purse after completing chores — like cutting the hay bale twine to feed the cattle — at her boyfriend’s farm.

When questioned, Drescher immediately told the school principal the truth about what had happened. Following school policy, the principal had to give Drescher a three- to five-day out-of-school suspension (OSS). The principal chose a three-day OSS. Drescher explained, "The principal said I didn’t need a five-day OSS because I was an excellent student and [had] never been in trouble for anything, never even had a detention. I’m on the honor roll, a varsity volleyball player, a wrestling team manager and I even participate in the Big Rebel/Little Rebel program which is a mentoring program for high school students (Big Rebels) to mentor elementary students (Little Rebels)."

Drescher and her family accepted the three-day OSS because as she says, "Even though leaving my pocket knife in my purse was an accident, I still violated the weapons policy and I knew I needed some type of punishment." The next day the superintendent called Drescher's dad and stated that he had decided to recommend a 12-month expulsion to the school board and had set up a school board hearing on April 24. Drescher explains, "My dad pleaded with him not to do this and that if there were any problems that we should discuss it. But the superintendent would not comment on anything except stating it could stop at his desk but he doesn’t want it to stop and that he had to 'make an example, even for the good kids.''

Drescher was offered a plea bargain expulsion for the rest of the school year, which she declined. But in the hearing on April 24, the school board unanimously voted to do just that. Drescher was devastated.

We support Alyssa Dee

Friends and family created a Facebook page in support of Drescher which she's so grateful for. But what she's found through the Facebook page besides support is equally important — and disturbing. Drescher says, "The stories [shared on the Facebook page] have been bitterly similar. Good kids, with no intent to harm anyone, are getting kicked out of school because of this Zero Tolerance policy and the officials hiding behind the policy, not taking each incident case by case."

Zero tolerance- Alyssa Drescher

Drescher is trying to take what positives she can from this no-win situation saying, "My family and I have concluded that maybe this happened for a reason, maybe I’m meant to help all of these other kids. Maybe I'm supposed to help change how schools and officials look at kids. My fight isn't over; I want what's best for all kids. I guess in the end the point is, the Zero Tolerance policy doesn't work. It's counter-productive to kick children (good or bad) out of school. What does that teach them? Why kick a child out of a structured schedule? Why not help a child if the school thinks a child is troubled? Each child needs to be looked at as an individual; academic and behavior records should be taken into account when they get into trouble. And most of all children need to be looked at as children. We are not perfect and we make mistakes and learn from them."

Time for some changes

At the time this article is being written, the We Support Alyssa Dee Facebook page has more than 6,600 "Likes" on Facebook. Drescher's friends and family set out to tell her story, but what they learned is that she is — sadly — far from alone and it might be time to revisit how Zero Tolerance is implemented in our children's schools.

Younger says, "Bright line rules fail to consider the circumstances surrounding an instance and can go too far. It depends on the goal of school administrators. If they were looking to curb Alyssa's behavior, it's clear that a lesser punishment would have had that effect without impacting her future as this punishment may do... While we would like life to be black and white, it rarely is. It's therefore difficult for rules to be so cut and dry. Life is made up of a lot of gray rules that take that fact into account and offer the best possible outcomes."

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What do you think about Zero Tolerance? Does it work? Is there a better way? Leave us a comment below.

Photo credits: We Support Alyssa Dee

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