Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

Article excerpt

Schools should have zero tolerance for any policy that treats all students the same, according to Mr. Curwin and Mr. Mendler, who propose a better approach.

ZERO TOLERANCE is another example of the road to hell paved with good intentions. What was originally intended as a policy to improve safety in school by ensuring that all children - regardless of race, athletic ability, or parental influence - follow the rules is used now as an excuse to treat all children the same when they are in need of corrective measures. Schools should have zero tolerance for the idea of doing anything that treats all students the same. One size does not and cannot fit all. The well-investigated research of Russ Skiba and Reece Peterson clearly demonstrates just how ineffective and full of false assumptions the concept of zero tolerance is.1

We agree that zero tolerance sends a powerful message to the school community that violent, aggressive behavior will not be tolerated. We need strong, effective policies to protect our students and to help them feel safe. However, zero tolerance, despite its appearance of fairness, is inherently an unfair policy. A doctor is not fair if he prescribes chemotherapy for two patients with headaches - one with a brain tumor and the other with a sinus condition - regardless of the similarity of symptoms. When two students in school throw a pencil - one because he has finished his assignment and is bored, the other because he cannot read the directions and thus hasn't even started the assignment - we do not treat them the same, regardless of the behavioral similarity. Any intervention that treats dissimilar problems with similar behavioral outcomes the same is not only unfair but destined to fail.

Eliminating zero tolerance policies is a hard sell because the concept is simple to understand, sounds tough, and gives the impression of high standards for behavior. Yet these very characteristics actually make things worse in many cases. Any intervention for changing children's behavior that is simple is simple-minded, and those that substitute formulas for decisions made by people who understand the circumstances are dangerous. It's time for schools to develop legitimate high standards by refusing to fall for the lure of what is easy and sounds good and choosing instead what is truly best for children.

As Tough as Necessary We call our solution "as tough as necessary," an approach that finds the balance between being strong and being fair. In some cases, the toughness required might be stronger than a previous zero tolerance solution. In other cases, the solution might involve other alternatives, including counseling, parent involvement, conflict resolution, training, or planning. The new synthesis sends this message: violence will not be tolerated, and yet we will not deal with students as if they are fast food. We can meet their needs without resorting to formulas while still protecting the school and its inhabitants from unacceptable behavior.

It is readily apparent that as tough as necessary is far superior to zero tolerance if we examine each policy in terms of how it teaches children to behave. Would anyone want a school board or a superintendent who had a zero tolerance attitude when dealing with stakeholders? Do you know anyone who was raised by a zero tolerant parent? What might that person say about how it affected his or her childhood? Could a marriage survive a zero tolerant spouse? More important, do we want children to have zero tolerance for others, particularly when they are angry?

We do not question the need for clear, firm limits or the conviction that certain behaviors are not acceptable. As tough as necessary allows us to honor and enforce limits without modeling "no tolerance." We would much rather see children who are as tough as necessary than ones who are zero tolerant.

The following two case studies support our position. …