People use the term “zero tolerance” to mean a lot of different things. In essence, it signals a tough, no excuses, discipline system. It curtails educator’s discretion in favor of simple black and white rules applied across the board.
But that approach is problematic under federal law. Our basic special education law, IDEA, says that students with disabilities may not be removed from their classroom placement as a disciplinary consequence unless the student’s ARD Committee concludes that the behavior was not a manifestation of the student’s disability. You can’t just slap a special ed kid into the DAEP due to a disciplinary infraction. You have to go through the ARD process first. Thus it’s hard to square that legal requirement with a strict “zero tolerance” approach.
Our federal special education law does include three “semi-zero tolerance” provisions. These are known as the “special circumstances” offenses—drugs, weapons and the infliction of serious bodily injury. If a student commits one of those offenses, the school is authorized to order an immediate removal of up to 45 school days. This can be done whether the behavior was caused by the disability or not. But that’s still not exactly what most people mean by “zero tolerance.”
So be careful in tossing this term around.
DAWG BONE: IT’S HARD TO APPLY “ZERO TOLERANCE” AND COMPLY WITH FEDERAL LAW AT THE SAME TIME.