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Diane W. Mufson: Zero-tolerance policies derail too many youth

Nov. 20, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Many decades ago while at the University of Vermont, I had a professor who had strict rules about everything. She had zero tolerance for tardiness. Initially this was not a problem. Then, during the winter intersession, I went skiing.

Ending up on crutches during a Vermont winter, I had no choice but to move slowly. For weeks, I was late for classes. Most professors understood, but Professor I (stands for inflexible) could not. She frequently reminded me of her disdain for lateness and reduced my grade accordingly.

Fast-forward many decades when the concept of zero tolerance for any wrongdoing was put in place in many schools. This was in response to dramatic increases in violence in a place where the most feared issues in past generations were tests and failing grades. Many years of experience with zero-tolerance policies have shown that they do not achieve the desired results.

They don't work for many reasons, including individual situations, extenuating circumstances, abilities and motivations. Zero tolerance may work for the military or penal systems, but not for schools. Back-talking teachers, writing on furniture and first time, nonviolent rule-breaking deserve consequences, not criminal charges.

A few years ago Forbes Magazine reported on the suspension of a 6-year-old boy who brought a camping utensil to school. While his parents should have been more alert, school officials should have had a better grasp on the functioning of 6-year-olds.

A 12-year-old girl in Texas was suspended for months for writing "I Love Alex" on the gym wall with a marker. Puppy love was treated just as a more threatening behavior would have been because of the school's zero-tolerance regulations. While this sixth-grader needed to clean up her act and the wall, there seems to be a better way for handling this misbehavior.

The U.S. Department of Education has noted that zero-tolerance arrests disproportionately impact students of color. Broward County, Fla. (Ft. Lauderdale area), has found that zero tolerance has resulted in a "school-to-prison pipeline," as law enforcement personnel working in the schools were regularly making arrests. Misdemeanor and non-violent offenses accounted for over 70 percent of such charges.

Christine Armario in the Huffington Post and recent NPR reports note that with zero-tolerance rules there is a law enforcement rather than school administration emphasis regarding student misbehavior and discipline. As a result, some students whose behavior is annoying and undesired, but not illegal, end up in the criminal system. Once a person has a record, it may be difficult to shed that label.

Schools must make sure that they provide a safe environment for all students and staff. Young people do not need to be coddled; they need reasonable consequences. On the other hand, for many in a zero-tolerance setting, it is possible that doing something dumb or aggravating could be a path to a criminal charge.

While criminal sanctions were never an issue in my dealings with Professor I, her attitude illustrates the foolishness of a zero-tolerance policy. I will admit that I totally lacked sympathy for this woman when she suffered an injury during spring skiing season.

There are times when authorities in schools must involve law enforcement because of students' dangerous or illegal behaviors. That is not new; unfortunately it is just more frequent and better publicized these days. Zero tolerance assumes that one size fits all and that life has no extenuating circumstances. However, it does, and because of that zero-vtolerance policies do not work.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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