Zero-Tolerance Policies in Practice

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

We don't really know what we want. That's the conclusion of a social psychologist who decided to test just how committed parents and others are to single-sanction, zero-tolerance, tough-love punishment regimens of the kind that many schools have adopted to fight drug use by teenagers.

Colgate University psychologist Kevin Carlsmith concluded that people fail to recognize that a zero-tolerance policy that seems simple and effective in theory will violate their sense of justice when they see it in practice. And that's exactly the response I've been getting to my column last week about Josh Anderson, the Fairfax high school junior who killed himself on the eve of a disciplinary hearing that was likely to have ended with his expulsion for being caught on campus with a small amount of marijuana.

I've heard from hundreds of parents whose kids -- like Josh -- have gotten caught up in a punishment system that fails to distinguish between drug users and dealers.

A Prince William County parent describes how his son faced expulsion after being found with less that one gram of marijuana on the next-to-last day of the school year. The boy was not permitted to graduate and had to repeat his senior year through home schooling because the county would not permit him to attend its schools. "It seems incredibly stupid to take a child with problems and to compound those problems by removing support, and tossing him out of school," the father writes.

Similarly, a father in Fairfax whose son was found with less than a gram of marijuana and was expelled argues that the punishment branded his son as a criminal, sapping his motivation and rendering him incapable of continuing his high-achieving path (the alternative school to which he was assigned lacked the Advanced Placement courses he had been enrolled in at his regular school). The child should get community service and a treatment program but should be allowed to continue his education -- the best way to get him past a rough period of adolescence, the father says.

Carlsmith found that most people choose punishments designed more for retribution than to create deterrence against future wrongdoing. People often endorse punishment systems that they later decide are unfair. "A person focused on deterring future crime ought to be sensitive to the frequency of the crime, the likelihood of its detection, the publicity of the punishment, and so forth," the professor writes.

The professor asked participants about a case like a real one in which a 13-year-old girl gave a Midol pill to a friend at school to relieve the friend's menstrual cramps. The 13-year-old was expelled for violating a school rule against distributing drugs. The survey asked whether expulsion or student-parent conferences with a guidance counselor would be the better response. Once they heard the details of the Midol case, 88 percent of those who had earlier endorsed the idea of a zero-tolerance policy reversed themselves.

We like the idea of zero tolerance and don't realize how unfairly it can treat people until we are slapped in the face with disproportionate results.

In the end, the psychologist concludes, "when it comes to introspection, we are all 'strangers to ourselves.'" Confronted with people going to jail for decades for stealing a kiddie video for a Christmas present or for lifting a Snickers bar, Californians turned against the "three strikes, you're out" legislation they had enthusiastically supported in theory. Likewise, parents who support zero-tolerance policies tend to reject them when they see some dumb teen getting expelled for acting like the dodo-head many 17-year-olds become.

In a fascinating postscript, Carlsmith asked whether a school with a zero-tolerance policy had a worse or less severe problem with drug use than a school with a more flexible approach. Those surveyed thought the zero-tolerance school had the more severe problem -- showing that although we might like the idea of zero tolerance, we sense that it must represent a certain desperation. Is that what the Fairfax school board really wants to communicate about its schools?


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