Archive for January, 2015

Zero Tolerance in School?

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015


The latest example of a Zero Tolerance policy in schools has claimed my attention.

Nate (name changed) was studying in his Skills Strategy homeroom in a Colorado middle school. His teacher is new to the district, and several boys were talking and goofing off in class. Nate told the boys to “shut up or he was going to kill them.” Remember he is an adolescent in eighth grade, another student trying to resist his peers. His perception of risk is limited and weak impulse control does not ensure strong orientation to the consequences of actions.

The teacher calms the class but does nothing further. The boys, however, since this is a Zero Tolerance school (and possibly to get back at Nate), go to the principal and divulge Nate’s statement. They are not reprimanded for disrupting the class, but Nate is suspended for 2 days, the punishment for using threatening language.

Zero Tolerance, a policy for schools, the military, the workplace, and drivers, started as a program for community policing in the 1990s War on Drugs. The idea was to squash the sale of and the detriment to neighborhoods from illegal drugs. Up the penalty for sale and use; drug criminality will go down. Sounds rational, doesn’t it? However, the penalty laws were raised and raised again as drug crime did not abate.

Why so? Drug buyers and sellers did not see the legitimate justice of the system. The courts did not give a defendant standing, certainly not to voice objection or opinion. The law was never neutral; offenders were not meted out punishment in a predictable, fair manner. One look shows you who was sent to prison. Offenders did not trust the court system. (Speech by Malcolm Gladwell, October 2011, The New Yorker Festival)

In schools for years, Zero Tolerance provides automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule intends to eliminate undesirable conduct. Furthermore, such zero-tolerance policies forbid the person in authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit the circumstances subjectively.

However, unintended consequences make news all the time, even though the most notable report by the American Psychological Association (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force, issued in December 2008, raised the issues of myths and suggested changes for the Zero Tolerance policy used all over the country.

Not only in courts, ludicrous application of Zero Tolerance policies in schools make the news all the time. Think about the story of the first grader suspended for bringing a water pistol to school; or the child who showed her teacher a plastic knife in her lunch pail to cut up her cookies.

Looking further, Zero Tolerance has not lived up to its stout promotion for schools. The achievement gap has not improved. Multiple suspensions and expulsions actually mean less time in class. Swift punishment has been shown to increase dropout and poor graduation figures. Parent support for Zero Tolerance depends on the circumstances. For example, is your student kicked out of school or no longer bullied. Of all the motives for establishing Zero Tolerance, the fear that school violence is at a crisis level is no longer true. Aside from several catastrophic events, school violence has reduced since 1985.

As for Nate, he had several relatives deal with the school about his suspension. Because they wanted solutions that were suitable for his offense, he was moved to another more stimulating class; he had sessions with the counselor; his grandmother is helping the school find alternatives to deal with middle school adolescent behavior, not meting out punishment and letting it go at that.