Zero Tolerance

Age-specific alcohol prohibition of persons under the age of 21 enjoys wide public support in the U. S., as does the policy of zero tolerance. Is zero tolerance effective? Are there better alternatives?

Zero Tolerance in Action

Prohibition for those under the age of 21 currently enjoys wide public support in the United States and is commonly imposed by school policy. For example, Carter Loar, a high school senior at Park View High School in Loudoun County, Virginia, was suspended ten days for violating the school's alcohol policy. Mr. Loar's violation? Using mouthwash on campus. School officials confiscated the contraband and "He was charged with violating the school's alcohol policy which prohibits the possession or use of alcohol on school property. As part of this ten day suspension, Mr. Loar was required to attend a three day Substance Abuse Program sponsored by Loudoun County." 1

Circumstances, including educational objectives, are irrelevant in judging behavior under a policy of zero tolerance. For example, during a three hour multi-course dinner in Paris as part of a field trip study of French culture, the 14 seventh and eighth grade students in the class were each permitted to sip a "thimbleful" of wine by the chaperon, their school principal. Many parents said they had signed tour company waivers allowing their young people to drink small amounts of beer or wine in supervised settings.Drug Free School Zone Sign

Nevertheless, the superintendent demoted the principal for violating the school's "zero tolerance" policy. Supporting this action was a parental advisor to the school who said, "They tasted wine. But it was not a wine tasting. They did not rinse and spit. They may have ingested alcohol." However, pressure from the students' parents led the superintendent to reinstate the principal after he wrote a contrite letter of self-criticism to the parents. 2

Not so lucky was Jennifer Coonce, an honor student who was barred from her high school for two months after she politely "took a sip from a glass of sangria as part of a toast" for a fellow employee. It was the student's first day as an intern at the company and she didn't want to cause a problem or embarrass the guest of honor by not participating in honoring the employee.

Because of her school's zero tolerance alcohol policy, Ms. Coonce was suspended for 10 days. Following her suspension, she was not allowed to return to school for two months. She had to take her classes at home over a speaker phone, but was unable to continue the honors courses she had been taking. Additionally, she was forbidden to participate in extracurricular activities and couldn't become a member of the National Honor Society.

These are harsh penalties for taking a celebratory sip of sangria off campus. More importantly, such extreme punishments adversely affect any student's chances for admission to an outstanding college, for receiving scholarships, and for subsequent success in life. However, the school defended its policy of rigid intolerance and insisted its actions were fair. 2

Not even totally abstaining can protect students from zero tolerance, as Mr. Loar discovered. Another abstainer who suffered was a 13- year-old student in Georgia, who was suspended for two weeks for merely giving his French teacher a gift-wrapped bottle of French wine!Wine glass and bottle

Nor are adults free from the negative consequences of zero tolerance. Consuming a drink in a restaurant cost high school teacher Lori Gallagher her teaching and coaching career.

Ms. Gallagher was suspended from her job as an English teacher and swim coach at Greenwood (Indiana) High School for consuming alcohol at a team dinner after a swim meet.

School regulations don't specifically prohibit a teacher from consuming alcohol in the presence of students but include a vague prohibition against "improper conduct" with students.

The school clearly makes no distinction between the legal and responsible consumption of alcohol by an adult and alcohol abuse. Amazingly, the Teaachers Association agreed, asserting that "Clearly, a situation in which in which alcohol is in the presence of minors is inappropriate." Apparently, merely taking students to a restaurant at which alcohol is available is also unacceptable. The prohitition is extremely vague.

What does this temperance view accomplish? Instead of seeing adults consume alcool in a legal, responsible manner, the message is that alcohol is an exciting taboo that has only one purpose -- to get consumers drunk. What a lesson for a school to teach! 4

Zero Tolerance Results

These are a few of the many victims of "zero tolerance," which is now all the rage. But what messages does such a zealous pursuit of zero tolerance send our young people? One apparent message is that those who promote such misguided intolerance have lost touch with youth, another is that they are unrealistic and impractical, and another is that their alcohol education messages are not credible.

More important, what does zero tolerance accomplish? Unfortunately, there is no evidence that "zero tolerance" is an effective deterrent to alcohol abuse. It is no more successful than were the scare tactics of early drug education and is almost certainly counter-productive.

Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence

A new report reveals that zero tolerance policies in schools is ineffective in reducing alcohol abuse or other problems.

According to the report "Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice," there is no credible evidence that zero tolerance is effective. Furthermore, school suspension and expulsion result in a number of negative outcomes for both schools and students.

The report, conducted by the Indiana Education Policy Center at Indiana University School of Education, reviewed the use of zero-tolerance policies since their inception in the 1980s.

"Zero tolerance is a political response, not an educationally sound solution," said Dr. Russell Skiba, author of the report. "It sounds impressive to say that we're taking a tough stand against misbehavior, but the data say it simply hasn't been effective in improving student behavior." 9

Alcohol is a part of Western society and the majority of Americans enjoy alcohol beverages. To pretend that young people will grow up to enter a world of abstinence is both unrealistic and irresponsible. Even religious groups strongly committed to abstinence are not very successful in maintaining it among their young people, the majority of whom drink. This is true even among students attending schools supported by abstinence religions. 5 Why should we expect secular education to reach even that very low level of "success?" It can't, and , unfortunately, zero tolerance won't help.

What Really Works

On the other hand, many groups around the world have learned how to consume alcohol widely with almost no problems. Those groups familiar to most Americans include Italians, Jews, and Greeks. The success of such groups has three parts:

  1. beliefs about the substance of alcohol
  2. the act of drinking
  3. education about drinking

In these successful groups, the substance of alcohol is seen as neutral. It is neither a terrible poison nor it a magic substance that can transform people into what they would like to be.

The act of drinking is seen as natural and normal. While there is little or no social pressure to drink, there is absolutely no tolerance of abusive drinking by anyone, anytime, under any circumstance.

Education about alcohol starts early and starts in the home. Young people are taught -- through their parents' good example and under their supervision -- that if they drink, they must do so moderately and responsibly. 6

In Europe, where the drinking age is generally 16, alcohol is served in some school cafeterias. In referring to the dinner in Paris, alcohol authority Dr. Dwight Heath of Brown University explained that "that is the best way for young people to learn about drinking. It deglamorizes it, it demystefies -- they are drinking in a responsible situation with adults, as an accompaniment to food." 7

What We Do in the U.S.


In spite of the fact that most Europeans promote responsibility and moderation by introducing alcohol to their children within the protective and supportive environment of the home, we ignore their successful example by denying children meaningful alcohol education in the false belief that young people can't handle alcohol. Our actions lead them to drink in uncontrolled environments, such as in cars, hanging around street corners with their friends, at unsupervised parties, and similar undesirable situations. These are the worst possible environments in which to learn appropriate drinking behaviors. When our unprepared young people subsequently fail to drink appropriately, we see that as "proof" that young people shouldn't drink. In this way, our society is creating the problems it fears.

Teaching Responsibility

But isn't it illegal for anyone under age 21 to drink? No, it isn't. In most states and communities, people of any age can drink for religious reasons, for health purposes, or under the direct supervision of their parents. And in at least 19 states, it is not specifically illegal for people under the age of 21 to drink. 8

Additionally, teaching responsibility toward alcohol doesn't require that young people consume alcohol any more than teaching them civics requires them to run for mayor or vote for president. We teach civics to prepare young people for civic responsibility when they become adults. If we drink sensibly, and think our children may choose to drink as adults, then we need to teach them responsibility, as well.

It's clear

We should have zero tolerance for "zero tolerance."


  • 1. Campus Report. A pox on mouthwash. Campus Report, 1995 (April), 10, p. 2.

  • 2. Brooke, James. School spreads alcohol policy to wine sips in Paris. New York Times, 1998 (May 31), p. NE12.
  • 3.;
  • 4. Knight, D. Greenwood Coach Suspended for Drinking. Indianapolis Star, March 9, 2000; Taylor, J. Reason Express, March 13, 2000, p. 2; Annals of Zero Tolerance: Scissors, Teacher's Beer., August 15, 2001.
  • 5. Guthrie, R. S. Abstinence and Alcohol Use among Senior Students Enrolled in Seventh-Day Adventist Academies. Unpublished M.S. thesis, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, 1986; Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1995, pp. 45-50.
  • 6. Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.
  • 7. Brooke, James. School spreads alcohol policy to wine sips in Paris. New York Times, 1998 (May 31). p. NE12.
  • 8. International Center for Alcohol Policies. Drinking Age Limits. Washington, DC: International Center for Alcohol Policies, 1998.
  • 9. AScribe News, May 15, 2001;, May 17, 2001.

Readings on zero Tolerance

  • APA Zero Tolerance Task Force. Are zero tolerance policies effective in schools? American Psychologist, 2008, 63(9), 852-862.
  • Cassingham, Randy. Losing my tolerance for "zero tolerance." (
  • Cauchon, Dennis. Zero-tolerance policies lack flexibility. USA Today, April 13, 1999.
  • Derbyshire, John. The problem with "zero." National Review, May 28, 2001.
  • Farrington, Heidi. Has 'zero tolerance' in schools gone too far? AP, June 15, 2007. (
  • Ghezzi, Patti. Zero tolearance for zero tolerance. Atlanta Constitution, March 20, 2006.
  • Gragg, Wendy. "Zero tolerance" a thing of the past in Waco schools. Tribune-Herald (Waco), October 11, 2009.
  • Hylon, Hilary. Texas eases "zero-tolerance" laws. Time, October 5, 2009.
  • McCardle, A. and Erzen, T. (eds.) Zero Tolerance. NY: NYU Press, 2001.
  • Martin, Ralph C. Zero Tolerance Policy. American Bar Association, 2001.
  • Mattiuzzi, Paul G. Zero tolerance policies. Everyday Psychology, March 11, 2009. (
  • May, M. Zero Tolerance. Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence, 2000.
  • Peterson, Matt. Schools becoming more 'tolerant' as 'zero tolerance' rules end. Dallas Morning News, September 27, 2009.
  • Radford: Zero tolerance Roanoke Times (Virginia), October 4, 2009.
    Scaringi, D. Zero tolerance needed for safe schools. St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, June 24, 2001.
  • Skiba, Russell. Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence. IU Policy Center report (
  • Skiba, Russell and Reece Peterson. The dark side of zero tolerance. Phi Delta Kappa International, January, 1999.
  • Snider, Laureen. Zero Tolerance Reversed. In: What s a Crime? Vancouver: U. of British Columbia Press, 2004.
  • Zero tolerance. Western Standard, (Canada), August 19, 2009.
  • Zero tolerance. (
  • Zero tolerance, zero effect, says expert. Science Daily, September 17, 2009. (
  • Zero tolerance, zero intelligence. (
  • Zero Tolerance: Information regarding zero tolerance policies for firearms in schools. California Department of Education on Zero Tolerance (