Why Zero Tolerance Doesn’t Work

Nowadays, we hear of zero tolerance policies becoming the norm. If you dress wrongly, you’re suspended. If you make gun fingers, you’re suspended. If you shave your head in solidarity with a cancer patient, you’re suspended. Even if you are a model student with no infractions, any such actions can threatened with strict discipline. The school administrators want to send a strong message that violence and threats of violence will be punished in hopes of deterring more school shootings.

Unfortunately, there are two major flaws because it teaches two wrong lessons. If the school administrators and education policy makers are serious about giving children the best education, they have to think outside the class room and beyond graduation. They fail because:

1. Zero Tolerance teaches inflexibility.

Shaved heads for men might denote association with gangs. I can concede that. But what if a 12 year old boy had to shave his head due to chemotherapy, would that result in an automatic suspension? If you apply zero tolerance where shaved heads is considered “disruptive to the learning environment”, then yes, suspend the boy. In Colorado, a girl shaved her head because her best friend had cancer and was bald too. She got suspended from school. The rule is the rule, right? Unfortunately, if educators are serious about educating children on life, then you’re teaching children to be uncompassionate, harsh, and never considering the exceptions to the rule.

Life is complicated. Life is chaotic so we have to make up some rules and regulations. I believe that. But because of the complexity and chaos, there are many exceptions to the rule; and when it comes to English grammar, exceptions to the exceptions to the rules.

In software testing, these are considered edge cases – where the situation is so rare that it is rarely considered.

In education, if you strip away the child’s ability to reason and work through the exceptions, you create automatons. You deny teaching critical thought to the children so that when they see exceptions to the rules, they are not threatened by the unknown and undefined.

Zero tolerance policies also force teachers to act and react a certain way when common sense might have given educators the leeway to do the opposite.  And because it reinforces inflexibility, it denies compassion. There are many situations where a teacher or counselor might take a child aside and ask for that child’s story. And in the case of the Colorado girl, the school board apologized in public and acknowledged it had taught the wrong lesson to the girl.

2. Zero Tolerance teaches outcomes and not intent matters. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. Using this same story of the Colorado girl, everyone was on her side because they saw her intent was extremely noble and praiseworthy. A healthy girl gave up her hair. She had no reason to do it. There’s no reason to give up hair at an age when girls start to dress up and pay even more attention to their looks. This young lady demonstrated empathy and loyalty – good traits. But instead, the school board focused on the outcome – preventing a disruptive classroom. Even then, a student’s disruption  is measured by intent as well. If a student drops his pen accidentally and it clatters around during a test, that’s disruptive…. except there was no malicious intent. It was an accident. Move on. If an epileptic student collapses in class, that’s disruptive but no administrator will suspend that student.

A man kills another person and the difference between innocence and guilt is his intentions; was it self defense or malice?

It’s ludicrous to think zero tolerance actually works in every case. There are many valid exceptions to the rules. There are plenty of occasions to use discretion, common sense, and compassion and empathy to guide decisions instead of a rigid rule.

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