Does “Zero Tolerance” work?


The December 2008 edition of the American Psychologist takes up this question when their task force on the matter publishes the article, “Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations (pp 852-862).

What did they find?

1. “…despite a 20-year history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions. Moreover, zero tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development.” (abstract, p. 852)
2. Zero tolerance is based on several assumptions that the authors found wanting

a. school violence is at a crisis level and increasing still. No (is this because of the policies?)
b. Zero tolerance increases consistency of discipline and sends a clear message. Not found in the data.
c. Removal of violent children will create a better climate for those who remain. Data suggests the opposite, schools with higher suspension rates have lower climate ratings.
d. Swift punishment is a deterrent. Not borne out in the data. Opposite may be.
e. Parents are overwhelmingly in favor of the policy. Mixed data here at best, depending on whether your child is a victim or offender.

3. Impact on minority and disabled children? The assumption was the zero tolerance wouldn’t be a respecter of persons. Data suggests disproportionate discipline of students of color not based on poverty or wealth. The suspicion is that teachers may need some help breaking down cultural stereotypes.

There’s a lot more in the article but I’ll stop here. Interestingly, the policy was created to be more fair across the board. The article suggests more wise implementation with more options for psychological care (no surprise there) rather than immediately going to the juvenile justice route. Either way, the problem has to do with wisdom. If you give administration options (akin to Judges discretion with repeat offenders) some will use it well, others not so much. If you make rules, they work well in decisions IF making the decision the same way every time is the goal. But of course, no one really wants that since wisdom dictates different responses. But then underlying prejudices will come back into play. However, it appears the policy doesn’t really address prejudice and stereotype anyway.

Is there a better solution?

1 Comment

Filed under Civil Rights, conflicts, counseling science, cultural apologetics, education, Psychology, Race

One response to “Does “Zero Tolerance” work?

  1. kathrine

    As a teacher my quick response to this question is ,”I hope so.” I think zero tolerance policies are adopted to have some concrete answer for the public and parents who are saying, “Something has to be done.” It gives someone on some committee an idea that they did what they could to solve the problem. But as far as what the policy actually does to resolve the problem is a different matter. It is humans with ideas and feelings who are the ones who have to enforce the policy so it is never done in the exact same way with every situation .And it shouldn’t be. Every situation is completely different with complex motivations, needs, disabilities or developmental issues. How do you treat all students fairly? Sometimes the most “fair” response is to treat two students very differently.
    I suppose it is the same situation we have in our legal system. However, I have noticed something interesting with the students I have worked with over the years. The students seem to know and understand when a student is in violation of the policy or the rules and deserves the consequences or when a student needs a little mercy. It is the adults who often have a hard time knowing the difference. Maybe as we get older the gray area gets grayer? Or do the black and white areas seem more defined? I don’t know.

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