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On the pitfalls of zero tolerance policies

While Obama Administration point man Arne Duncan has stepped forward to address heavy handed school punishments, we need a cultural shift as a nation.
While Obama Administration point man Arne Duncan has stepped forward to address heavy handed school punishments, we need a cultural shift as a nation.
Photo by Larry French/Getty Images

With the Obama Administration’s effort to shift schools away from so-call “zero tolerance” policies must come a cultural shift away from such strict standards. Zero tolerance policies are not, however, always unjust or unnecessary. Well-defined policies offering immediately applied punishments for serious, narrowly defined acts of misconduct, such as expulsion for bringing a handgun to school, are useful when there are no legitimate reasons for a given act. It is when zero tolerance policies are used in excess and in situations where the punishment serves no imminent public safety interest or does not allow for any reform of the offenders that it is inappropriate.

As an example outside of student misconduct, my college has a thoughtless and unjust “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to sexual harassment or assault. A parent’s unfounded accusations of sexual misconduct once cost a man his job, because he video tapped the soccer practice of the team he was coaching. The boys had their shirts off on a hot summer day. Clearly, this type of policy rewarded the false allegations of an over concerned mother without giving the legal system a chance to sort out the facts, which it immediately did. In other words, this type of zero tolerance policy reinforces the tendencies of public institutions to react to potential PR issues by legitimizing it instead of ensuring the safety of a community.

Not only are these policies thoroughly unjust and overbearing, they also cultivate a culture of discrimination toward anyone who is not part of a given social circle. Say an administrator of my school, who happens to have influence over its hiring committee, decides she buys into one of her gossipy friends’ claims about a guy who offended her daughter. She could cost a quality worker a job in an economically suppressed community while any sharing of hiring information with other institutions could destroy that person’s career before it is started, without him ever knowing what was being said about him, without him having a chance to defend himself.

Furthermore, a student being slapped with a lifetime stigma thanks to a felony charge for missing school is not only unjust, it is a form of systematic discrimination. From the celebrity who gets canned for saying the wrong thing to the felon who gets a 25 year sentence for stealing some cookies due to “three-strikes” laws, the abusive use of zero tolerance policies only feeds our society’s reactionary tendencies. Instead risking individuals potentially doing harm to others, we accept intuitional injustice, intolerance, and oppression. Moreover, the thoughtless design and implementation of reactionary zero tolerance policies must stop in all aspects of our society.