Zero Tolerance

Zero Tolerance

Sierra is a great student and model citizen, but when she makes an unintentional goof, her principal's zero-tolerance rules may kick her out of middle school forever!

The seventh grader was so busy with a new Leadership Club proposal and getting to Octave choir practice on time that it wasn't surprising that she picked up her mom's lunchbag by mistake that day. When she finds a paring knife with Mom's apple, Sierra is sure that turning it in at the office is the right thing to do.

But zero tolerance for drugs and weapons at Longwood Middle School means no exceptions, so the honor student is immediately put in suspension - until her expulsion case is heard by the school board! No matter what her lawyer dad says or how much Sierra explains the error, she's out of class and choir practice all week.

Of course, it makes the news when an honor student is suspended for such a small mistake (thanks to Dad's office), so Sierra spends her evenings talking to reporters, texting her friends, and hoping this can get settled soon. She's missing a dissection project and French quizzes and seeing Colin in choir... somehow, spending all day in a small room with Luke teasing her doesn't make up for that.

It's Luke who shows her the secretary's open email account when they creep out of the suspension room, and Sierra gets a good/bad idea, quickly sending a letter to the editor of the Denver Post under Ms. Lin's name. Then things at school really start to heat up!

Is Luke just a bad influence or is he a good guy underneath?
Will Sierra miss the choir competition (and standing next to cute Colin)?
Can they really expel her from school and her friends forever?

This humorously thoughtful story about "one size fits all" rules in today's schools shows that kids and adults can make mistakes, yet still find ways to protect students and teachers without abandoning common sense.

Recommended by: Katy Manck, Librarian-at-Large (retired academic/corporate/school librarian), Gilmer, Texas, USA

240 pages  Ages 10 and up   978-0-374-3312-6


"Goody two goody two goody goody two shoes

Goody two goody two goody goody two shoes"

-- Adam Ant

"Sierra opened the Velcro flap on her lunch bag.  Hungry or not, she'd better eat something, or her stomach might start rumbling in French class, right as she was sitting next to Colin.

"She opened her sandwich and was about to take the first bite when she looked at it more closely.  It was ham and cheese, not plain cheese.  She must have grabbed her mother's identical lunch bag by mistake: Sierra hadn't eaten ham or pork or bacon ever since reading Charlotte's Web back in third grade.

"'Great,' she said.  'I took my mother's lunch, and she took mine.'

"Irritated, Sierra dumped the contents of the lunch bag out onto the table.  The loathsome sandwich, two oatmeal raisin cookies, an apple, and a paring knife to cut it with.

"Sierra stared at the knife as if a coiled serpent had appeared from her mother's lunch bag, poised and ready to spring."

Back in her school days, my daughter Rosemary would have undoubtedly (and scathingly) referred to Sierra Shepard as a "goody-goody."  Given the way the adults at the school reverently treat her, some other young people might well characterize Sierra as a suck-up.   

A seventh grader at Longwood Middle School, Sierra is one of those girls who is in all honor classes, is part of the Leadership Club, and sings in the school's elite a cappella choir.

And Sierra Shepard is now a student who has brought a deadly weapon to school.

"She was halfway to the door when Ms. Lin called out sharply, 'Where do you think you're going, missy?'

"Missy?  Ms. Lin had never spoken to Sierra in that way."

What a great premise for a story of interest to young people that will promote critical thinking and animated discussions!  Sierra immediately brings the knife over to the lunch lady, who brings Sierra to the Office.  What now?  Given what we've learned about her, our perception is that Sierra is totally innocent of wrongdoing.  But does a goody goody get to avoid consequences for something that a less-stellar student gets an automatic suspension (or worse) for doing? 

We all know from experience that while, in Sierra's case, we instinctively accept the knife's appearance as an honest and totally innocent error, so many of us would be just as quick to judge a difficult student in the identical situation as having totally made up such an implausible excuse.

I'm betting that, in fact, it's the kids who get labeled as problems who, in reading this book, will likely be the most sympathetic toward Sierra.  They know all too well how rules can be stupid, how clueless adults can be so rigid and anal, and how unjust it is to never be given the benefit of the doubt. 

"'Kevin Hennessey!' Ms. Wyman exclaims.  I'm sure she figures it is Kevin who put the whoopee cushion on Addie's chair, because statistically speaking -- and statistics are Ms. Wyman's raison d'être (which is French for 'reason to be,' in case not knowing what something means in another language gets in the way of your following the action) -- you'd have a pretty good bet that Kevin is guilty of just about anything that happens in school."

-- from THE MISFITS by James Howe

So we have the issue of whether rules are rules, and one pays the consequences regardless of whether or not there is intent to do wrong, and we also have the issue of whether some students unfairly get pegged as trouble makers (a la Kevin Hennessey) and then get blamed for things they have not done.  (Which somehow just made me think of Henry Fonda as Clarence Gideon in a movie that I'm betting Bobby Goodspeed and his dad would love to watch together.)  And, as with THE MISFITS, there is an issue here with name-calling.

See how much comes out of just the first 17 pages of this story?!!!  And it only gets better...

"He turned back to Mr. Granger.  'And all our students know that zero tolerance doesn't mean a slap on the wrist, writing on the chalkboard a hundred times "I will not bring a weapon to school." or a three-day in-school suspension.'

"'So it means...?'

"'Expulsion.  Mandatory expulsion.  It wasn't Luke Bishop, was it?' Mr. Besser asked Ms. Lin.

"'No.' Ms. Lin looked at Sierra.  'You tell him.'

"This couldn't be happening.  There had to be some way to make it come out right -- there had to be.

"Sierra said, 'It was me.'"

...and it gets pretty darn funny, too!  And really interesting when, during the time leading up to her expulsion hearing, Sierra has in-school suspension and thereby gets to really know the school's resident "bad boy" Luke Bishop.  An absolutely killer story. 

One could readily employ a tale like this as the springboard to a whole year of investigating and discussing morality and moral development and labeling and what makes for a good society. 

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS
Instructor, San Jose State University, California USA

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