Friday, March 29, 2013

'Zero-Tolerance' Policies: Are They Effective?

Public Policy

Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Other Tales

Zero-Tolerance Over-Reactions:
Credit& Source:
One of the policies that often receives little scrutiny as to its effectiveness is the idea of "zero tolerance," a public policy that dates to the 1990s; the phrase itself ought to give pause for further consideration. In a sense, it implies an intolerance for something, usually a negative social action, which is understandable and acceptable. The question under consideration here is whether zero-tolerance policies have been given too broad of a definition, thus limiting reason, common sense and flexibility in its application.

Zero tolerance started out as a sound policy to combat racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny and other forms of social evils; in this regard the policy is sound and good for society. A policy that attacks evil is a good and necessary one. But it has morphed into something beyond its original intentions, chiefly, I suspect, because governments like to act, or at least appear they are acting in the best interest of society.

Schools, the cradle of learning, seemed like an appealing choice to institute zero-tolerance policies, particularly since some schools had a serious problem with violent students. Teachers should not have to endure such agressive blatant acts of violence, and it's reasonable and necessary that all such students should be removed from school. But what happens when the policy is applied not to clear acts of violence but to thoughts, ideas and normal activity? So, today, zero-tolerance has become a convenient catch-phrase to include anything that the state considers threatening in society, including colourful language, roughhousing among boys, playing games with toy weapons, and as the cartoon depicts, making imagery of weapons.

The religious taboo of making images of deities has now been transferred in secular society to the taboo of making images of weapons. This is risible in a nation, the United States, that has at least 250 million guns within its borders—the highest per capita rate in the world—and that has a political lobby that defends their necessity and use. I wonder if the irony is lost on legislators and policy makers. That the state has created the problem it now wants to solve, by other means, is also questionable, and would be funny if it were not so serious.

The consensus is that public safety is too important to ignore; yet the way that legislators have gone about its implementation defies common sense and good public policy. To a great degree, the state's need to create safe public spaces has led to unintended consequences where all individuals, including school-age boys, are viewed as suspicious when through no fault of their own they act as boys [see Allowing Boys To Be Boys]—all actions thought harmless and normative in a previous generation now undergo scrutiny by educational officials.

Nowhere is this greater than in American schools, which has had its incidents of school shootings. The greater question is whether such a zero-tolerance policy has actually made schools safer? Zero tolerance, by implication, suggests that to prevent unlawful acts of violence of any magnitude from being committed by school-age children, schools need to assiduously and continually monitor their students and all actions. This is a scary and costly proposition, and it also takes much-needed time from teachers whose ultimate purpose is : teach children.

In effect, schools in many ways are now approaching the model of prisons; they already use the language, including words like lockdown. (Perhaps teachers ought to dress in uniform, as well, giving them more authority and carry side arms, as some have suggested.) The normal mind ought to recoil that schools approach the look and feel of prisons, but not the policy-makers, it seems. Don't let the facts stand in the way of a good tough-sounding approach.

Yet, both the approach and arguments supporting it are tendentious if not absurd, since there are no peer-reviewed scientific studies that show, let alone prove, that such public policies actually work. And yet, such is the standard policy in schools today, not only in the United States, but in Canada and in many European states.

An article ("Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?; 2008) published by the American Psychological Association's Zero Tolerance Task Force says the following:
Yet abundant controversy has been created in schools and communities throughout the nation in the actual implementation of zero tolerance policies and practices. For example, as reported in the St. Petersburg Times (“Educational Intolerance,” 2001), a 10-year-old girl found a small knife in her lunchbox placed there by the mother for cutting an apple. Although she immediately handed over the knife to her teacher, she was expelled from school for possessing a weapon. In another case, an adolescent was expelled for violating school rules by talking to his mother on a cellphone while at school—his mother was on deployment as a soldier in Iraq and he had not spoken with her in 30 days (Torpy, 2005). Such cases rankle students, their parents, and the public but are often rationalized as necessary sacrifices if zero tolerance policies are to be applied fairly and are to be effective in creating a deterrent effect.
One of the results of a zero-tolerance policy is that it has created an exclusive state, which might sound good to some people. It has lead to undue harsh punishments, a deviation from examining evidence on a case-by-case basis to a one-size-fits-all approach; it's too simplistic a model to apply for all cases. Of greater importance and consideration is that zero-tolerance policies will never solve the far greater socio-economic problems that exist—most notably in the U.S. but also evident in all western democracies—such as poverty, inequalities and injustices.

The APA task force concluded with the following sensible recommendations:
The accumulated evidence points to a clear need for change in how zero tolerance policies are applied and toward the need for a set of alternative practices. These alternatives rely upon a more flexible and commonsense application of school discipline and on a set of prevention practices that have been validated in over 10 years of school violence research. Although further research is necessary to understand how best to implement such alternatives, current evidence clearly suggests that research-based prevention practices hold a great deal more promise than zero tolerance for reaching our shared goals of safe schools and productive learning environments..
That was in 2008; needless to say, the state has only increased its vigilance and further broadened its use of zero-tolerance policies. Is it far-fetched to think that, with such policies considered good and normative, a policy of ferreting out thought crimes is not far behind?