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.)
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