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Zero Tolerance

Running Head: Zero Tolerance

Zero Tolerance and Ethical Decisions

Thomas E. Ferrell, Jr.
Virginia Commonwealth University

Moral Dilemma

Mr. Quayle, an elementary school principal has a tough decision to make. He must

decide on how to proceed with a fourth grade student (James) who is seen as a nice student, who

brought a gun to school.

The moral dilemma is whether or not Mr. Quayle should adhere to the district’s zero tolerance

policy for weapons or keep this matter quiet and work with James and his family.

Analysis of the Dilemma:

Values in Play

Autonomy– Regarding the James and the issue with the gun, Mr. Quayle wishes he were

in a position to handle the situation on a school level and not have to invoke the zero tolerance

policy. “It was hard to imagine him (James) as anything other than a nice fourth grade boy”

(Strike, Haller, and Soltis, 2005, p. 184). This is what makes the decision that Mr. Quayle has to

follow through with a tough one.

Confidentiality– Only Mr. Quayle, principal and Ms. Hesston, James’s teacher are aware

of the situation. By keeping it confidential and not alerting the police and by not following

through with the discipline that bringing a gun to school calls for, would Mr. Quayle be making a

sound ethical decision? “Unless he could handle it discreetly and privately and persuade Ms.

Hesston, who seemed sympathetic, to keep it quiet for James’s sake” (Strike, Haller, and Soltis,

p. 185).

Justice– Most school systems have a centralized discipline matrix in place. Despite the

fact that James seems like a harmless student, does Mr. Quayle have the right to treat him

differently than any other student who might bring a gun to school? Are there circumstances in

place that would prevent the school system from invoking the zero tolerance policy? That

certainly is not Mr. Quayle’s decision to make. In order to be fair and just, it is his responsibility

as a school leader to turn this matter over to the appropriate authorities in the school system and

in the legal system.

Principles in Play

Concern for the well-being of others– Although there is a zero tolerance policy on

weapons that appears to be set in stone, it is clear that Mr. Quayle is concerned for what this

situation will do to James and his family. He is playing out the best possible way to handle this

without doing too much damage to “a nice fourth grade boy” (p. 184). He is clearly a principal

who sees past what is written in what would be his district’s code of conduct.

Willing Compliance with the Law– Despite the fact that Mr. Quayle would like to handle

this matter internally, he understands that he does not have the flexibility to usurp the district’s

policy, “ignoring the gun was illegal” (p. 185). With he and Ms. Hesston as the only adults who

know about the gun, Mr. Quayle can take a chance by not involving the law. However, one thing

that was not brought up was whether or not any students know about the gun. It’s been my

experience that if a student brings a weapon to school, at least one or two students know about it.

Impartiality; objectivity– Should Mr. Quayle have the capacity to look at each weapons

case subjectively? Principals can get into situations where they give certain allowances for

students who exhibit exemplar behavior. Exhibiting this type of behavior, however, does not

mean that a student is not capable of making a poor decision with regards to weapons. Mr.

Quayle is in a difficult, yet not so difficult situation. He has to adhere to the zero tolerance

policy, but those above him have the final say as to whether or not James is expelled or faces

other consequences. He can be sympathetic to James and his family, but his line has to be a hard


Possible Course of Action


Adhering to the Zero Tolerance Policy - By adhering to the zero tolerance policy, Mr.

Quayle, the school, and the district send a strong message to students and the community that

bringing weapons to school is unacceptable. Will this do damage to James, who felt like this was

his way of getting school bullies to leave him alone? It’s quite possible that it may. Being

expelled from school and isolated from everyone during school hours can be damaging to

anyone; let alone a fourth grader. However, this also opens the district’s eyes to a couple of

serious problems: 1. a serious bullying problem and 2. the ability of a fourth grader to acquire a

dangerous weapon. Holding James accountable and enforcing the zero tolerance policy is s

Handle the matter internally- Given that Mr. Quayle and Ms. Hesston are the only two

adults who know about this matter, Mr. Quayle could elect to deal with this matter internally.

Although James’s parents would certainly appreciate Mr. Quayle’s generosity in giving James a

break by not enforcing the policy, how does Mr. Quayle handle the next student that brings a gun

to school? Does he totally ignore the policy and begin to look at students on a case by case basis

with regards to weapons?

Ethical Decision Making

There are several ethical paradigms that I could take in deciding on how to proceed in

settling this matter. The Ethic of Justice and Kantianism are the vehicles that I will utilize in

making an ethical decision that will benefit the school.

Theory Explanation

Shapiro & Stefkovich (2001) and Staratt (1994) state, “The ethic of justice demands that

the claims of the institution serve both the common good and the rights of individuals in the

school.” When utilizing the Ethic of Justice, one takes the institution into account over the

individual. The ideal is that what is best for the institution is what’s best for the individual.

Kantianism, named for German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is rooted in the

fact that it is, “Our duty to do what is right” (Strike & Soltis).


In utilizing Kant’s theory to resolve this matter, the ethical thing to do would be to

enforce the zero tolerance policy. The justification is that it is our duty as school administrators

to do what is right for the school. This can and often means that an individual suffers a harsh

consequence, but we must look at the bigger picture; our responsibility to protect the entire

student body. According to Strike & Soltis (pp. 14-18), Kant also says that “prior to acting, we

should ask whether what we are about to do would be a good model for a rule for other people to

follow.” I think this in itself provides a blue print on how to deal with matters in which a student

brings a gun to school. Everyone administrator should follow the same protocol which would be

to adhere to the zero tolerance policy.

In taking the Ethics of Justice into consideration, the decision to invoke the zero tolerance

policy is the fair and ethical thing to do. James’s decision to bring a gun to school, despite the

fact that he is a “good fourth grade boy” was a conscience decision that he made. For making

such a decision, he has to suffer the consequences. Granted, many administrators tend to take

personal relationships with students into consideration when dealing with them on discipline

matters; however, right is right and wrong is wrong. Based on the Ethics of Justice, Mr. Quayle

must invoke the zero tolerance policy; it is the ethical thing to do.

Ethical Objections

The following personal ethics might come under attack with regards to my decision to

invoke the zero tolerance policy:

• Concern for the well-being of others– One might argue that I did not take the fact
that James was being bullied and that he is a “good kid” into consideration.
However, “good kids” are capable of making poor choices. When they do, they
have to suffer the consequences.

• Benevolence: doing good – In the eyes of some, James might have been doing a
“good thing” by standing up to the bullies. When we look at his brining a weapon
to school on a larger scale, not punishing him the full extent sends the wrong
message to James and to the other students. James did not “do good.”

When utilizing ethical reasoning to make decisions that greatly impact others, you still

struggle to do what is right. As human beings, we have feelings and emotions and it is not

always easy to satisfy our feelings and make sound decisions. Having the basis of a theory

doesn’t necessary give you a blue print to follow, but a guideline in which you can use to make

ethically sound decisions.

Works Cited

Shapiro & Stefkovich (2001), Starratt (1994). Ethical Leadership and Decision Making in
Education. Retrieved February 18, 2009.

Strike, K.A., Haller, E.J & Soltis, J.F. (2005). The Ethics of School Administration. New York,

NY: Teacher’s College Press.

Strike, Haller, & Soltis. Demonstration Case: A Clash Between Rights and Fairness. Retrieved

February 18, 2009.