#428 – Zero Tolerance By Claudia Mills

zero tolerance.


Zero Tolerance

By Claudia Millslogo_123377_web (1)

Margaret Ferguson Books

.Top 10 of 2013

Inside Jacket:  Seventh grader Sierra Shepard has always been the perfect student, so when she sees that she accidentally brought her mother’s lunch bag to school, including a paring knife, she immediately turns in the knife at the office. Much to her surprise, her beloved principal places her in in-school suspension and sets a hearing for her expulsion, siting the school’s ironclad zero tolerance policy: no drugs, no weapons, no exceptions. Sierra spends her days in suspension with the so-called troublemakers, especially her classmate Luke, and discovers that their stories are more complicated than she thought. Suddenly none of the lines between right and wrong are as clear as she thought they once were. Everyone makes damaging mistakes—even, it turns out, Sierra herself.

Opening:  Sierra Shepherd sat in the office at Longwood Middle School during lunch recess 5A, waiting to see her principal, Mr. Besser.

About the Story:  Sierra is a top student, a school leader, and a member of an eight-member acapella choir. She is also one of the principal’s favorite students. When her mother accidentally grabs the wrong lunch bag—the two have identical bags—Sierra innocently takes a paring knife to school her mother intended to use to slice an apple.

Sierra, always one to do the right thing, immediately turns in the offending knife. The principal, proud of the progress his zero tolerance program has made suspends Sierra until an expulsion hearing can be held. Sierra would be spending her days with kids she never intended to be anywhere near. This includes Luke, a perpetually suspended kid from a broken home. Luke calls Sierra Shepherd, Sierra Shep-turd.

Sierra’s father, a fierce lawyer, defends his child. When trying to be reasonable with the principal does not work, Mr. Shepherd has the press—local and national—honing in on the story of the honor student being railroaded by an intolerant zero tolerance policy. Soon things get out of hand and Sierra actually sits in front of the school superintendent, waiting for him to expel her from Longwood Middle School for the infraction of unknowingly bringing a small paring knife to school.

What I Thought:  Zero Tolerance starts out as a typical middle grade story of pre-teen angst. Quickly, Zero Tolerance turns into a war of words, fragile feelings, and slipping social status. A group of four friends, all achievers, who stick together slowly seem to be coming apart at one seem. When Sierra finds the knife in her mother’s lunch sack one friend tells her to put it back in the bag, another grabs the knife and shoves it back into the lunch bag, and the third says and does nothing.

Zero Tolerance is a principal’s conundrum. Mr. Bessler, unaware Sierra is the knife wielding student, postures in front of a visiting principal saying, there are no exceptions to the no exception policy, no exceptions. He meant to impress the administrator, not impale his prize student. Who would have believed Sierra would bring a weapon to school? But seriously, is a paring knife a weapon?

I love how the students react. One bright young boy starts a petition, getting nine teachers and hundreds of kids to sign. Will it make a difference? Sierra has a crush on Colin. The more he orchestrates in defense of Sierra, the more she thinks he likes her in return. At least until she sees Colin and Celeste holding hands. Ah, good ole’ Celeste, kicking her BFF when she is already down. Maybe she had no idea Sierra liked Colin “in that way.”

Mom and Dad support their daughter without fail. Dad, a fierce, losing-is-not-an-option attorney is confident Mr. Bessler will rescind his threat of expulsion or he will bury the guy. When he finally has what he needs to do just that, will he be pushed into using the information to save Sierra?  Mom, more a peacekeeper than a warrior, wants to consider sending her daughter to a different school. Dad becomes infuriated when his wife and daughter visit a creativity-based charter school—Beautiful Mountain—he had told his wife not to visit.

“…just forget about the fruits and nuts at Pretty Mountain. I’m not having my daughter throw away a first-class education at the most rigorous school in the district for some touchy-feely hipster nonsense.”

This confident attorney, devoted to his daughter and her future, must go up against a confident principal, whose zero tolerance policy turned Longwood Middle School into that most rigorous school in the district. A battle is set. I love the father’s attitude toward his daughter. Mom calls the attorney’s love for his daughter the only chink in his armor. The chink could crack.

I like Zero Tolerance’s look at a policy once considered the only way to keep drugs and weapons from schools. If that meant hurting one or two innocent kids for the greater good, it had to be. I love that Sierra, who once would never consider Luke a friend, has so changed her mind about the “bad” kids. She is realizing that few things are cut and dry; that most situations are complicated. Middle school is the beginning of this awareness and Zero Tolerance explains this dissonance in a way kids this age—8 to 12—can understand.  This is a good story and Sierra is easy to root for, but so are her father, and the principal. Near the end, even the mean-spirited, soul-crushing Ms. Lin can make you feel for her.

Zero Tolerance is a book teachers can easily use in the classroom. The story is easy to read, flows naturally in a tone kids will understand, and does not paint any one adult as a villain. Adults will also like this story. The middle school setting is not the center of the story. Sierra’s life is the center. Hers is a character study of a growing mind learning to deal with society’s mores, even when unjust. A story about standing tall in the face of injustice, showing good character even when hurt, the difficulty of doing the right thing, and learning that few things are exactly as they appear on face value.

Zero Tolerance is not a girl’s story. Zero Tolerance is a story of due diligence told in words and tone middle grade kids and older will understand, appreciate and hopefully remember when it becomes their time to exercise it, maybe in a situation of zero tolerance.


Junior Library Guild Selection

Zero Tolerance

By Claudia Mills    website    blog    facebook

Margaret Ferguson Books    website    facebook    goodreads

Released June 1, 2013

ISBN:  978-0-374-33312-6

231 pages

Age 8 to 12


2013 by Margaret Ferguson Books, used with permission

Text copyright © 2013 by Claudia Mills

Margaret Ferguson Books is an imprint of Farrar Straus Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan Publishers)



zero tolerance 2013

**Zero Tolerance was inspired by a real zero tolerance explosion caused by a young middle grade student accidentally bringing her mother’s lunch to school . . . with a paring knife inside.


23 thoughts on “#428 – Zero Tolerance By Claudia Mills

  1. Must say I read this with mixed emotions. As a teacher, I have been on the other end of this argument several times, once when a student reported a weapon in the school. Spent 8 hours in a lock-down with no weapon found. While I emphasize with parents, it becomes another issue on my side. Parents have the responsibility to protect their children; Teachers have the responsibility to protect 25+ children; Principals have the responsibility to protect 300+ students. Unfortunately, we as humans do not make the right choices all the time; the world truly is a matter of greys; and it’s better to err on the side of caution. Schools should be safe, but they’re not. If you compromise Zero Tolerance once…

    Sorry for my soapbox.


    • I do agree with you. It is actually easy to agree with both views, as both are correct. Your argument is sound, but so is Sierra’s while she sits in detention for doing the right thing when unknowingly brings this paring knife.

      The ironic thing, and I am not sure if the author just missed this or let it go on purpose, but if Sierra’s mother had not taken that lunch bag to school, instead of Sierra, the mother would have had the knife in a school. The mother was also going to a school to substitute. What would have happened to her?


  2. Based on a true story! Wow! I guess gone are the days when people could rely on good judgment instead of black words on white pages. Are we really living in such a black and white world? I think I would be absolutely infuriated by the injustice of the situation if I read this one! But it would be a great book to generate discussion in a middle grade classroom. Great review Sue! Thanks for joining us in the Kid Lit Blog Hop.


    • The book was not as infuriating as the real situation must have been. The book is a fun read, with the one serious subject as an undertone. The adults work on the problem while Sierra deals with the consequences of missing her classes while at detention.


    • Yeah, do you believe this principal. He finds it more important to save face than do the right thing. Not a very good example for the people in his community. I felt sorry for the young girl. But then I remember the knife was in mom’s lunch bag and she was substituting that day in another school. So the policy does not apply to staff? I wondered about that. Nice to see you here again. I hope you are enjoying the hop.


  3. Wow! I almost skipped this review. I seem to be way behind because it’s hard to find good computer help these days, and I’m enjoying pushing that delete button!! But this book sounds pretty incredible. Too much going on for my head. Makes me dizzy! There’s stuff like this in our news all the time. You’ve stirred up quite a hornet’s nest in your comment discussion!!


    • Whoa! You were gonna skip this review?! You still haven’t caught up?! You enjoy pushing the delete button?! Okay, that is fun.

      I keep getting behind in replying to comments but here I am. I always enjoy your comments so don’t you dare, I mean, uh please, yeah, please don’t you dare skip my reviews. You could be missing a great book, or a rowdy bad review, or maybe a funny post ,or even a scathing opinion piece about canines and their noticeable lack of computing skills. You could miss a lot!

      Where is this hornet’s nest? I don’t like hornets. If one stings you, they all want to sting you. And if one chases you, it calls for all its buddies and then you are really in a pickle.


    • She took a real story and turned it into a wonderful story for middle grade kids that can be used in the classroom. Those that make these policies should read this before they carve out their zero tolerance plan.

      Hey, wait a minute you. Are you saying I can only get lots of comments if the author is clever? Boy, oh boy, my dear loyal reader, that ain’t so. *sticking my tongue out at you* Is it? 😦


  4. Great choice! This sounds like a fascinating book. Zero tolerance can be a tough pill to swallow sometimes. My town had a kid in kindergarten suspended for 10 days for a comb that popped out like a switchblade. A comb! Gah!


    • How is that a weapon? That is crazy. 10 days!? How do you explain this to the child? My mother would have had that town ripped apart. Wow. Poor kid. It really seems to me, the more years pass–and it could just be older eyes–but it seems common sense gets more and more lost. Look at Washington. If there is any place that needs a jar of common sense it is that place. 😦

      What was that phrase everyone yelled out their window (in a movie I also cannot name). I know I am asking you to be part mind reader. *time lapse* OH, yeah. I think it was, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more!” (But then they did nothing, or did they?) 😀


  5. Very nice review, Sue!
    Such is life today, with zero tolerance and not too much common sense. This reminds me of a time, many years ago, when my son, then in kindergarten, went to school with an ornamental bullet keychain attached to his backpack. The horror!


    • Seriously?! What was he going to do? Did he have an ornamental gun keychain to go with it? 😆 The absurdity of some people to take everything, every rule so concretely. Did they send your son home or send a contrite note home with him for you? I understand zero tolerance and am all for it, with common sense added in, just a little is all it takes. 😐


  6. This sounds like a good story. I agree with Ms. Tilton. Sierra DID do the right thing, the principal didn’t. The principal had made a big deal about an accident. And he can’t even accept that it IS an accident – wow. *shakes head* 😡


    • It did when it happened. It shook the author into writing the fictionalized version of the story. I’m glad she did. Amazing how little common sense is used – like in Washington. 😦 Not everyone really understands right from wrong. Be glad you do. 🙂

      Ironically, her mother, whose lunch bag had the paring knife to cut an apple at lunch–was substituting in a school at the time. So if the lunch bags had not been switched, the mother would have taken a knife to school – a different school. Still . . .


  7. This really sounds like an excellent book for the classroom. I understand the need for zero tolerance, but when a mistake is made and the student herself goes to the principal, I find myself angry at the system. I like how the kids rally around her. We hear situations like this in variations on the news all of the time. Sounds like a good social justice topic.


    • This situation actually occurred. It is what inspired the author to write the story. I cannot imagine something like this happening, but it did. There needs to be some common sense – and the two friends that told the girl to put the knife in her bag and say nothing, had the only common sense that day.

      I agree this is a good book for teachers and principals to read and then use in the classroom. 😀


If you like this post ... Why?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.