Zero Tolerance Policies: no substitute for good judgment

The term "zero tolerance" suggests that it is a consistent, no-nonsense approach, and that such policies must therefore obviously be an effective and beneficial disciplinary strategy. These policies are prominent in the educational system, and so in the interest of school accountability, it is relevant to ask: does it really work?

The American Psychological Association considered that question and created a task force to look at the data and the research. Recently published in the American Psychologist, the Task Force report suggests that when put to the test, the policy flunks.

The analysis focused on five key assumptions underlying the use of zero tolerance policies in the schools:

1. It is assumed that zero tolerance policies are necessary because school violence is increasing and increasingly out of control. The reality is that the rates of violence and disruption in schools have remained steady or have actually declined over the past twenty years or so. Obviously, violence prevention efforts are absolutely necessary to protect against both common place incidents and critical acts of aggression. However, disciplinary policies should be formulated in response to the actual threat, and not in response to the "feeling" that the problem is out of control.

2. It is also assumed that mandatory and inflexible punishments serve to create consistent discipline and clarity in the disciplinary message. In fact, they do not. Within school districts that have adopted such policies, there remains a great deal of variation across schools with respect to how many kids are actually disciplined (or need to be disciplined), and there is just as much variation across school districts with similar policies. Whether or not a school is orderly has much less to do with the disciplinary guidelines than with the quality of teachers and the quality of school governance. Indeed, the quality of the school may be more important that the attitudes and behavior of the students.

3. It is assumed that the removal of disruptive students provides for a school climate more conducive to learning. In fact, the opposite is true. Schools in which expulsions and suspensions are common tend to have less satisfactory school climate ratings and are found to spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary issues. And after taking into account the socioeconomic status of students, they tend to have lower academic achievement rates.

4. It is assumed that zero tolerance punishments will deter those expelled or suspended from misbehaving in the future. Instead, what is found is that those who are disciplined in this fashion will in the future be more likely to continue misbehaving, more likely to drop-out and less likely to graduate. Perhaps it would be justified if some benefit accrued to the school and the student body, but it is not justified if it simply involves making it a problem to be dealt with by someone else.

5. The final assumption considered is the idea that parents and students overwhelmingly support zero-tolerance policies. Here, the data are mixed. Some parents applaud such efforts, especially when the punishment is applied in specific cases that have caused public alarm. On the other hand, there are just as many cases in which parents and other students are left feeling that the punishment was unfair and that some measure of forbearance should have been granted. The concept of "a second chance" is deeply rooted in our consciousness, as is the idea that "the punishment should fit the crime."

School discipline is important. Punishments are often necessary. If it could be shown that arbitrary rules made schools safer or that they eased the administrative burdens associated with exercising discipline, then of course a zero tolerance approach would be recommended. But what seems to make sense does not always in fact meet the test of common sense.

After considering whether or not zero tolerance policies have any unique benefit, the APA Task Force also looked at whether there is a downside or dark side to such policies.

On the dark side, there are important implications. First, it appears quite certain that rather than being "color blind," arbitrary punishment strategies tend to disproportionately effect students of color and students who suffer from various forms of psychological disturbance. Second, there is clear evidence that zero tolerance policies tend to increase the likelihood that those disciplined will end up as clients of either the juvenile justice or criminal justice system. In general, these policies violate the old adage: "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

The APA Task Force did not in any way seek to suggest that disciplinary actions are unimportant, or to argue for excuse and tolerance. Instead, they outlined a set of recommendations focused on the benefits of flexibility. In any situation where a disciplinary response is required, there are indeed different and "alternative strategies" to be considered.

With respect to making schools safe, the weight of the evidence shows that there is little benefit to be obtained from abandoning individual case analysis and judgment. There is no apparent benefit to be obtained from arbitrary rules. There are in fact a number of disciplinary alternatives available in any situation. The task is to evaluate every situation on its own merits.

Further comment: As a long-time observer of the criminal justice system, I am particularly aware of the fact that arbitrary rules are counter-productive. Set rules do not provide respect for authority. Justice demands that every crime and every offender should be judged individually. That is what Judges should do.

Arbitrary rules serve to diminish the role of Judges. In the school setting, arbitrary rules serve to diminish the role of the School Principal.

From my perspective, the danger presented by zero tolerance policies (and mandatory sentencing guidelines) is that they provide the offender with an excuse and a justification. Rather than taking responsibility for their behavior, they blame the system for its rigidity. There is hardly anything more dangerous than an offender who believes the system did not afford them justice. Rather than having the punishment serve to correct their behavior, the belief that they were treated unfairly is used as a justification for future misbehavior.

And in the school, I believe that a zero-tolerance policy sends exactly the wrong message. It is often the case that when someone is expelled simply as a matter of course and in a reflexive way, other students will rally to their cause, rather than condemning their behavior.

Authority figures have a responsibility to exercise judgment and discretion. When they wash their hands and abandon that responsibility, they lose respect and credibility in the eyes of those they are meant to guide.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.