Is Zero Tolerance the best response to bullying?

School bullying, especially bullying targeted against LGBTQQ children, is finally getting the attention it merits.

Rick Mercer’s viral rant on teen suicides (see below) has been viewed nearly half a million times in a mere week.

This morning on the radio, Mercer discussed the video with local indie rock station The Peak, and admitted he was overwhelmed with the unexpected – and positive – response.

He was also asked about what more we should be doing. Mercer is a comedian and actor and tells The Peak that he was lucky enough not to be bullied in school. He suggests that student’s need to stand up against bullying, even if they aren’t directly involved – something he failed at in schools.

He also suggests that some people have told him that Zero Tolerance policies have been effective in their schools.

Zero tolerance policies are an interesting case. In general progressives oppose heavy-handed retributive justice and argue that these punishments fail as a deterrent for future crimes. But when it comes to disadvantaged children in schools – ethnic minorities, the disabled, GLBTQQ, the poor, etc. – we are sometimes sympathetic to the same arguments that we need to come down hard on the bullies to deter future harassment.

Zero tolerance is typically proposed to signal a school or a district’s attitude that certain actions are intolerable. If a student violates the rules, there is no appeal and the student immediately receives a maximal punishment, often suspensions or expulsion. It has been used for everything from bullying, weapons, and drugs, to cell phone usage.

While bullying and violence in school are certainly inexcusable, it is always necessary to test the claims and arguments of a policy against reality. For zero tolerance, one review from Indiana University concludes in the title that there is zero evidence [pdf].

Despite the controversies that it has created in school districts throughout the country, zero tolerance continues to be a widely used response to school disruption and violence. This paper explores the history, philosophy, and effectiveness of zero tolerance school disciplinary strategies. Growing out of Reagan-Bush era drug enforcement policy, zero tolerance discipline attempts to send a message by punishing both major and minor incidents severely. Analysis of a representative range of zero tolerance suspensions and expulsions suggests that controversial applications of the policy are not idiosyncratic, but may be inherent in zero tolerance philosophy. There is as yet little evidence that the strategies typically associated with zero tolerance contribute to improved student behavior or overall school safety. Research on the effectiveness of school security measures is extremely sparse, while data on suspension and expulsion raise serious concerns about both the equity and effectiveness of school exclusion as an educational intervention. Community reaction has led some districts to adopt alternatives to zero tolerance, stressing a graduated system matching offenses and consequences, and preventive strategies, including bullying prevention, early identification, and improved classroom management. Building a research base on these alternatives is critical, in order to assist schools in developing more effective, less intrusive methods for school discipline. [emphasis added]

A 2008 review [pdf] from the American Psychological Association concludes the same, also arguing that there are better approaches than zero-tolerance.

Although there can be no dispute that schools must do all that can be done to ensure the safety of learning environments, controversy has arisen about the use of zero tolerance policies and procedures to achieve those aims. In response to that controversy, and to assess the extent to which current practice benefits students and schools, the American Psychological Association convened a task force to evaluate the evidence and to make appropriate recommendations regarding zero tolerance policies and practices. An extensive review of the literature found that, despite a 20-year history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions of a zero tolerance approach to school discipline, and the data that are available tend to contradict those 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. To address the needs of schools for discipline that can maintain school safety while maximizing student opportunity to learn, the report offers recommendations for both reforming zero tolerance where its implementation is necessary and for alternative practice to replace zero tolerance where a more appropriate approach is indicated. [emphasis mine]

The second report is definitely worth a read. It points out that zero tolerance policies can threaten minorities and the persons with disabilities with unreasonable punishments due to existing stereotypes and misunderstandings. It also presents evidence contradicting most intuitive assumptions about zero tolerance. It concludes with good advice for all policy-makers.

Under an evidence-based paradigm, it is incumbent upon both researchers and practitioners proposing new educational and psychological interventions to demonstrate, through a rigorous research design, the beneficial effects or positive outcomes of those practices. In the same way, we would argue that the critical lens of evidence-based evaluation should be turned on existing policy, to ensure that current practices are truly of benefit to the students and schools who are the recipients of those procedures. This is
especially true when, as is the case with zero tolerance, the procedure is controversial and poses some degree of risk (e.g., lost educational opportunity for those removed from school).

I believe the same fears that act on conservatives who support mandatory minimum sentencing and the federal government’s tough dumb on crime legislation act on parents and educators who worry about the most vulnerable members of our society. It is natural to want to seek retribution against those who would endanger our children. But just like organic foods, natural isn’t necessarily better and is often more costly.

The key message is that in our zest to create strong anti-bullying policies, we must ensure they are effective. To implement ineffective policy is to simply waste money. We must be mindful of our emotions: using them to inform our goals without clouding our reason. Let’s stick with the evidence.

One thought on “Is Zero Tolerance the best response to bullying?”

  1. Zero tolerance usually involves ignoring the specific circumstances of an incident or applying a predetermined response without consideration of what would be the best response in those circumstances. And of course zero tolerance policies often end up punishing the bullied for striking back, because the reason they struck back is irrelevant in a zero tolerance response. “You hit him. You’re expelled. I don’t care why/”

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