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Zero Tolerance: Parents Talk Tough, But Are They Really?

We don't really know what we want. That's the conclusion of a social psychologist who decided it was time 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 in the wake of a popular backlash against drug use by teenagers.

Colgate University psychologist Kevin Carlsmith looked at the consistent support for the University of Virginia's legendary honor code--an example, he posits, of a policy that "assigns extreme punishments for minor offenses." Under the code, any case of lying, cheating or stealing leads to expulsion. No lesser punishments are possible in the system. Carlsmith wondered why that system remains so popular and he theorized that people love the clarity and simplicity of the approach in the abstract, even if they are often offended by how it plays out in reality.

That's exactly the dichotomy I see in reader responses to my column last week about Josh Anderson, the Fairfax high school junior who killed himself on the eve of a disciplinary hearings that was likely to have ended with his expulsion for being on campus with a small amount of marijuana.

I've been hearing 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 father in Fairfax whose son was found with less than a gram of marijuana and was expelled from school argues that the punishment far outweighed the crime and 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 father says his son, in addition to completing a treatment program and a community service regimen, should be allowed to continue his education--the best possible way to get him past a rough period of adolescence. The system disagrees.

But I've also heard from parents such as this mother, whose son faced a different approach after he was found with a bong on school grounds: The senior and his family feared he'd be expelled, but his private school had a disciplinary regimen intended as much to educate as to punish, so he got a choice: Leave the school, or be suspended for a week and enter an intensive treatment program. "We will never be able to thank the school administration enough for how they handled the situation," the mother writes. "I am convinced they saved my child's life. I wish Josh Anderson had that opportunity." The student is now in college, healthy and thriving.

Carlsmith decided to look more closely at our attitudes toward tough punishment schemes.

Carlsmith found that most people choose punishments designed more for retribution than to create any deterrence against future wrongdoing. People often endorse punishment systems that they later decide--after they see them in action against real people--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 shared a Midol pill with 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 to such an incident. Once they heard the details of the Midol case, fully 88 percent of those who had earlier endorsed the idea of a zero tolerance policy reversed themselves.

As Carlsmith notes, "The key finding of this study is that people fail to recognize that the deterrence policy will violate their intuition of justice until after they see it in practice." That is, 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 the disproportionate results of what at first seemed like a clear and simple policy.

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 that they had enthusiastically supported in theory. Similarly, parents who in theory like zero tolerance policies tend to turn against them when they see some dumb teen getting expelled for acting like the dodohead many 17-year-olds become.

In a fascinating postscript, Carlsmith asked whether people thought 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 to punishment. Those surveyed believed that the zero tolerance school had the more severe problem--showing once again that while we may 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?

Continue the conversation on Potomac Confidential, my weekly discussion show here on the big web site--this week at a special day and time, Wednesday at 11 a.m. (The show returns to its regular Thursday noon time slot next week.)

By Marc Fisher |  April 14, 2009; 8:21 AM ET  | Category:  Fairfax , Schools , Virginia
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Comments

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The psychology is very simple: Parents want to be very strict with infractions thinking that it protects their kids (who would never touch drugs); it's always somebody else's kids that cause trouble, of course. When they inevitably find out that THEIR kids experiment with drugs, or skip a class, they change their tune.

Zero tolerance gives the impression of being fair to all, and it has the advantage for officials of being easy to enforce; every case is a black-or-white decision. The trouble is that the parents and officials who support zero tolerance are imposing a penalty with sometimes drastic consequence on the kids of people who have brains and who realize there has to be some leeway.
For fairness, what's needed is not zero tolerance, but a clear statement of infractions and penalties at different levels, which must be applied equally to all, whether their parents are doctors or cleaning ladies.

Posted by: threeoaksgone | April 14, 2009 9:01 AM

Zero Tolerance policies can be very effective. The problem is how they are applied. Often organizations lump all offenses of a somewhat related nature under one umbrella. The Midol case is perfect example. The rules, as written, lumped passing an OTC drug that was available to anyone including both the giver and receipient at any local drug store with distributing illegal drugs. Those are two radically different offenses lumped togethor under one policy. That is a case of bad implementation, not a knock on the fairness of zero tolerance. If you do X, you get Y, no expections. It works as long a X is clearly defined and punishment Y fits any and all crimes that would fall under X.

Don't knock zero tolerance, knock those who are too lazy to implement it properly.

Posted by: akmzrazor | April 14, 2009 9:04 AM

"Zero Tolerance policies can be very effective."

Do you have any evidence to back this up? I'd love to take a look at some numbers.

Posted by: VTDuffman | April 14, 2009 9:22 AM

Zero tolerance is an opt-out for adults who fear using their own judgement in case others take them to task for their decisions. Rather than make fact-based, rational decisions, they hide behind blanket policies. And then we wonder why young people show no judgement. They've never seen it in action!

Posted by: topicaltimely | April 14, 2009 9:35 AM

I could not have said it better.

The psychology is very simple: Parents want to be very strict with infractions thinking that it protects their kids (who would never touch drugs); it's always somebody else's kids that cause trouble, of course. When they inevitably find out that THEIR kids experiment with drugs, or skip a class, they change their tune.

Zero tolerance gives the impression of being fair to all, and it has the advantage for officials of being easy to enforce; every case is a black-or-white decision. The trouble is that the parents and officials who support zero tolerance are imposing a penalty with sometimes drastic consequence on the kids of people who have brains and who realize there has to be some leeway.
For fairness, what's needed is not zero tolerance, but a clear statement of infractions and penalties at different levels, which must be applied equally to all, whether their parents are doctors or cleaning ladies.


Posted by: threeoaksgone | April 14, 2009 9:01 AM

Posted by: knjon353 | April 14, 2009 9:38 AM

Josh's death should be a serious wake up call to this school district at how destructive and ineffective their ZT policies are.

Let's all hope someone in this school district shows some courage and leadership and drasctically overhauls the disciplinary process. If not, it is time for new leadership, folks. Everyone contact your school board member and demand change or let them know they will be voted out next term.

Our kids deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion and tolerance. This throw away mentality is positively barbaric-we are failing these students by not doing the right thing.

Posted by: takebackourschools | April 14, 2009 10:03 AM

topicaltimely has it correct: Zero tolerance substitutes rules for judgment.

Posted by: not_fifty | April 14, 2009 10:20 AM

I think the earlier commenter pointed out something important here: there are really multiple problems. One is that things that are against the law- possession of illegal drugs are being grouped with things that are not illegal, but merely arbitrary rules put in place by the school (possession/distribution of OTC drugs). We also see schools attempting to punish students for things that they did when not at school, extending their jurisdiction into people's homes. When they do catch someone, they automatically deny them an education. And yet, when students are physically attacked at school, the proper criminal charges are seldom filed against the attacker. The school systems have allowed themselves to be cowered by a subset of fearful parents, aggressive lawyers, and control freak administrators into creating their own legal system. If students are committing real crimes, let the real courts handle it.

Posted by: staticvars | April 14, 2009 10:38 AM

The distinction needs to be made that the failure of Fairfax Cty's "zero tolerance" is not simply its harsh severity, but its actual execution. Why is there a lack of clear distinction for harmless "drugs" like pain-relivers or equating the infraction of a "birth control pill" with "bringing a gun to school"?

I believe Fairfax parents support policies that will "help, not hurt" our students. Therefore, I hope our SBd will recognize that the current zero tolerance policy is creating harm and needs to be revised.

As parents, we need to make our voices heard, in hopes that our elected officials will act!

Posted by: macfiveva | April 14, 2009 10:47 AM

It is well worth repeating that those in favor of zero-tolerance merely support an abstraction. Should they themselves ever be so unfortunate as to actually experience the merciless meat-grinder that is zero-tolerance in Fairfax County, they will surely change their opinion. Zero-tolerance, as administered in Fairfax County, and especially as administered by the malignant and blatantly dishonest Hearing Officers, is a sad and sadistic ritual. The policy, and the violent Hearing Officers on whom its unjust administration depends, must be abolished. Immediately.

Posted by: Coriolanus | April 14, 2009 11:21 AM

"Josh's death should be a serious wake up call to this school district at how destructive and ineffective their ZT policies are."

While I agree that zero tolerance policies are misguided efforts, I have a hard time linking them to this young man's death. While I won't say it wasn't a factor, anyone contemplating or actually committing suicide has other problems going on. It's too simplistic -- and probably unfair to Josh -- to simply blame the policy.

From last week's column: "The Andersons say a system that immediately escalates a case to the county level strips families and schools of the chance to work together to help a teen"

This is exactly what you get when you turn education over to elected officials and county bureaucrats. Yet we willingly turn over children to the public education system -- discussing alternatives that might help children, such as charter schools and voucher programs (see DC) -- are derided by officials and teachers unions b/c they put parents in control. And they can't stand that.

There are more than 164,000 students enrolled in FCPS. How exactly are students supposed to get the indiviual attention they need? Of course they have a zero tolerance policy. If you were reponsible for that many students, what would you do? You could spent weeks adjudicating everyone's indiviual medical needs to determine what they can/can't have in school.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | April 14, 2009 11:49 AM

Zero tolerance requires zero intelligence. It also requires zero discretion and zero judgement.

That's why it's so popular with "educators" and "authority figures".

Idiots.

Posted by: thermowax | April 14, 2009 12:43 PM

So this guys' study suggests that people don't think things through when beating their chest in public?


I wonder who could've learned from that lesson...?

Posted by: JkR- | April 14, 2009 12:52 PM

This article is better reasoned than last week's column which oversimplified the cause for a teen's suicide. That being said, there is still a big difference between the injustice for a 13 year old with Midol for cramps and someone who was caught with marijuana twice.

The problem seems to be that there is a one-size-fits all approach to punishing a wide range of incidents. Criticizing zero-tolerance doesn't really address that problem very well. It seems like the schools need to break down the rules a little better, with different punishments for different offenses. Once those new guidelines are in places, there should be zero-tolerance for offenders.

Under any system, getting caught at school with marijuana a second time should be treated harshly. Whatever failed Josh Anderson, I don't think this policy should bear much of the blame. The policy was much less fair to the 13 year old caught once with Midol.

Posted by: giotto | April 14, 2009 2:09 PM

I would sure love to hear the FCPS school board or administrators defense of their current policies other than that is the way the State legislatures want it. Other VA school districts are not this cuckoo. Ever possible to get them for a real interview or a podcast?

While I understand sending kids who have been fighting/weapons/drug dealing out of the community (i.e. across the county to a less desirable school on violation #1)- and by this I mean truly criminal fights, weapons and real not OTC drugs---Most people are not aware that a 2nd TOBACCO violation - irregardless of age and many HS students are 18 or older - and this right from Regulation 2152.6:

"For a second or subsequent violation related to tobacco products, a student shall be placed in an alternative instructional arrangement or suspended from school."

Back in the dark ages, and I did attend FCPS, we had a SENIOR SMOKING COURTYARD. I am non-smoker, so I did not enjoy that option, but FCPS has certainly travelled a long long way from there.

Furthermore, I agree that if a Juvenile has been CONVICTED of a Crime within the Community, expulsion may be indicated, especially if that individual is incarcerated or his/her attendance at school would be too disruptive to the classroom. But I do not see why every encounter with the Juvenile Justice system is reported to the the school, like they are the Gestapo and must know all. My child's counselor specifically told me years ago "DO NOT TELL THE SCHOOL - they will take a bad situation and make it worse". I was naive at the time and thought the counselor was unusually paranoid.

I was astonished a few years later when my child who was guilty of a summer party that had an alcohol incident was kicked off his Fall Sports Team 6+ weeks later. The Athletic Director claimed sovereign rights over all athletes at all times even though the incident did not happen during the school year or on school property or on school time. It did not matter that punishment was already laid out. I guess we are lucky our child was not completely expelled.

Posted by: monniefournier | April 14, 2009 2:19 PM

The schools implement these policies in a draconian manner simply to avoid being sued. As long as they blindly follow the policy no judge will rule against a school as long as the policy does not violate existing laws.

Once you introduce judgement you are 100% guaranteed to lose. And if the policy is not absolutely black and white you'll spend years, and millions, in court. Ask any lawyer, they'll tell you the same thing. After all, the lawyers are ones advising the schools on how to implement these policies in the first place.

Posted by: elkiii_2008 | April 14, 2009 5:24 PM

The Commonwealth of Virginia parental guidelines on school discipline state that disciplinary actions are to be corrective in nature, and not punitive. Fairfax County Public Schools, then, are out of compliance, as, by definition, zero tolerance can't be corrective. It can't be corrective because it does not allow administrators to consider the "mens rea", "the thing in mind", which has underpinned our legal system and our cultural for millennia -- it's the principle behind trials. Good administrators are sandbagged by the practice (at least "officially"), while bad administrators can hide their incompetence behind its rigidity.

The odd thing about zero tolerance as a policy for school administration, though, is that it is an offshoot of a discredited and unsustainable theory of policing. In the 1980s and 90s, zero tolerance became something of a mantra for big city mayors, particularly one with national ambitions from New York. The idea was that arresting people for petty crimes would prevent bigger ones, and for a while, it seemed to work. Subsequent research showed, however, that the drop in crime was due primarily to both a temporary decline in the demographic most likely to commit street crime (teenage males) and the increase in police presence (in effect, community policing, perhaps the most effective strategy for crime prevention, and a practice often seen in good schools). In sum, zero tolerance proved ineffectual, and no less an august group the the American Bar Association has published papers and testified before Congress asking that it specifically be disallowed as a disciplinary policy in schools. Rather ironic, I would say, given the often stated position that zero tolerance policies hold back the hoards of angry, helicopter parents who would sue school systems into the ground. The option to sue has always been there, but the time and money required deter all but the well heeled.

The bleak truth is that (some) FCPS principals routinely skirt around this policy, invoking it when it suits their purposes, and ignoring it when it is politically prudent. I have seen this firsthand. This is a cruel form of cynicism and petty despotism which drove a young boy, really, to suicide; and many others to lose sight of the purpose of public school in the U.S., which is to learn how to be a good and productive citizen. Whim and caprice (coupled at times, I suspect, with racism and fear of the students) are hardly the foundation of sound educational policy.

Posted by: theITprofessor | April 14, 2009 7:31 PM

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