Zero Tolerance in Schools - A Myth?

Think that a school can suspend anyone involved in a fight under a "zero tolerance" policy? Not so fast. Children have rights, and although they're somewhat diminished in a school setting, they still exist.

No one wants to have children fighting in a school and school officials are understandably trying to function in a difficult system. However, when schools act in a way that harms innocent children, the law can provide a defense.

Self-defense is a limited defense insofar as it only provides justification for acts which are necessary to protect the individual from attack, and only permits sufficient force to reasonably provide such protection

Decision of the Commissioner 17-335

In Decision of the Commissioner 17-335, the Commissioner was tasked with determining whether the suspension of a student was justified. Here's what happened:

PM, the suspended student in this case, approached another student who had been bullying PM's younger sister. In moments, the bully's brother and a friend had appeared, grabbed PM and were repeatedly punching him. The fight was broken up and all of the students were suspended. The superintendent found that although PM didn't hit anyone else, he did admit to throwing a punch, he did insult him verbally, and he was involved in the fight.

The superintendent suspended PM for his conduct and noted that this wasn't the first time this kind of scuffle happened as PM was disciplined previously for confronting other students for bullying his sister in the past. PM's parents appealed the suspension and the Commissioner rendered an incredible decision. The Commissioner found that although PM didn't connect with a punch, he did admit that he tried to punch the other students and because of that, he could be guilty for violating the code of conduct. However, the Commissioner found that it was self-defense!

I find that petitioner has established that the student justifiably acted in self-defense and swung only in an attempt to extricate himself from physical restraint which had been imposed by another student. The student testified that he was in pain, bloody and confused; had received an estimated dozen punches to his face when he took a swing at C.M.; and that he only swung in an effort to escape. Student witnesses confirmed that the student’s arms were held behind his back while he was punched repeatedly by C.M. The student denied taking a swing at D.G., but admitted that he may have hit C.M. in his effort to escape. There is no evidence in the record that C.M. suffered any physical injury as a result of any such swing; that the student threw any other punches after swinging at C.M., which the superintendent acknowledged in her decision; that the student persisted in fighting after attempting to escape from the physical restraint; or that the swing involved excessive force in response to the attack by C.M. Therefore, I find that the charge of “Assault with Physical Injury or Threat of Injury on School Property” must be dismissed because the student committed an assault in a justifiable act of self-defense.

Decision of the Commissioner 17-335

This wasn't the first time self-defense was used to reverse a suspension and in this case, there were several mentions of other cases where self-defense was used justifiably. Parents need to be on notice that school officials cannot bully their children around in the name of "zero tolerance." No child should be stripped of the right to defend themselves when they are being attacked and thanks to our legal system, everyone has a chance to ensure their rights.


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