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Don't tolerate zero tolerance

As a policy for how we deal with inappropriate behaviour, zero tolerance wants us to believe that if we clamp down hard enough this fixes the problem. Any problem. But behaviour is a complex area and simplistic solutions do not address this complexity and lead to other issues.
Basically zero tolerance means fixing things by punishment and that one punishment fits all. Calling someone names is bullying behaviour but so is pushing and hitting others to physically threaten them. Does name calling deserve the same punishment as aggression & violence? I do not think so.

Does zero tolerance encourage people to speak up and report issues? Most likely only if they belief the punishment fits the offence. If the person thinks the punishment is too harsh under zero tolerance then they might not report it (Kowalski, Limber & Agatston, 2012).

How does zero tolerance educate or support the offender to make changes? The culture surrounding zero tolerance is simply about making the person pay regardless of the circumstances. In many cases those using bullying behaviour are considered to "be at risk" and zero tolerance will generally force them out of environments where there are positive role models and influences. This further isolates them and pushes them towards developing relationships with others at risk. Not good for future outcomes.

What about the evidence? Well, the American Psychological Society zero tolerance task force (2008) conducted a review of 20 years worth of evidence for zero tolerance policies in schools. The conclusion was it has "failed to achieve the goals of an effective system of school discipline." (p.860). While evaluating only school settings there is plenty we can learn from this for use in other settings.

These are some of the issues with zero tolerance. There has to be consequences for actions - this is not disputed. But all actions are not exactly the same, occurring for the same reason or in the same context. To be fair and just, we need to consider these things before issuing consequences. That is why our justice systems have established elaborate mechanisms to judge cases and decide and hand out appropriate punishment. A zero tolerance strips away the means of being able to decide on fair punishment on a case be case basis.

American Psychological Society Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008). Are zero tolerance polices effective in schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, 63, 852-862. (Cited in Kowalski et al. (2012) and download from: (accessed 20/9/2012 )

Kowalski, Robin, M., Limber, Susan P., & Agatston, Patricia, W. (2012) Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age 2 ed. Chitchester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell
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