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Tolerance vs. Zero Tolerance




February 27, 2002








In a recent column in the New York Times, William Safire lamented the calamitous growth of surveillance in this country. Now, in addition to banks, department stores and other public places, he says, our pictures will be snapped at the monuments in Washington dedicated to Lincoln and Jefferson, neither of whom would have countenanced such chicanery. We are, it would seem, rushing headlong back to 1984.


Yet, surely Safire must know that surveillance has been on the upswing for over a decade, and nowhere is it more evident than in our public schools. Here in the WJC school system county police, called “School Resource Officers,” regularly walk the halls. Sniffing dogs are periodically brought in to search for drugs and other illegal substances, and students have ceded whatever privacy rights they once had to personal searches, locker searches and searches of their automobiles when on school property. And all of this in the name of zero tolerance. 


According to Chuck Maranzano, the spokesman for the school system, zero tolerance was introduced into the schools in the early 90s to counter the rising tide of violence with which teachers and administrators were confronted. In the early days, says Maranzano, who, as principal of Lafayette, was involved in upwards of 800 incidences of expulsion each year, the application of zero tolerance was harsh and, perhaps, unwarranted. Now, however, the rate of expulsions has dropped considerably, and those students who are expelled are offered alternative educational opportunities. In addition, says Maranzano, the horror stories we’ve all heard about students being expelled for minor infractions of the rules – such as bringing plastic forks or knives to school – are no longer true.


Undoubtedly, however, there are still problems. Teachers and administrators are being forced to play arbitrative and judicial roles that go far beyond their duties as educators, and a whole new bureaucratic system has been created to deal with violations of the zero tolerance code. In fact, the “Student Discipline Rules,” a guide for parents and students, lists no less than 33 possible violations of the code, while the rest of the booklet is devoted to the judicial procedures that have been devised to deal with infractions. And all of these procedures involve teachers, school administrators, school board members, lawyers and, one supposes, parents. In short, the burden of administering this code is a tremendous one. 


Furthermore, while it is perfectly clear that things such as drug abuse and violent behavior cannot be tolerated in the schools, there are, amongst the lesser offenses, gray areas which should be subject to, for the want of a better expression, common sense. Bullying, for instance, is a case in point, and is, perhaps, the most prevalent and psychologically destructive type of behavior the schools have to deal with.


But the application of the code in cases of bullying is troublesome, since it disallows self-defense. Hence, the bullied student has no recourse other than to, as Maranzano says, run away from the conflict and seek the help of the nearest adult – an option that, for image-building middle and high school students under constant peer pressure, seems totally unrealistic. Consequently, the student who reaches his limits of toleration and finally strikes back at the bully is, under the zero toleration code, just as subject to being handcuffed and escorted off the premises as the bully. As a middle school parent whose son has been the object of bullying, told me,  “the [zero tolerance] policies seem to ignore the factors that lead to conflict. The result is not that conflict is suppressed, but it is now expressed in insults rather than overt aggression. The kid with a mean mouth is king.”  


 Recognizing this as a major problem, Del. Bradley Marrs (R-68th) during this session of the General Assembly offered HB 512, which would have prohibited the imposition of disciplinary actions against students who defended themselves in cases of bullying.  Unfortunately, the bill was passed by in the Committee on Education. 


What, then, is the answer? According to Louis Messier, a professor of Education at William and Mary, most schools know who the perpetrators are in the case of bullying and they could, as some do, intervene before the conflict is underway. Aggressive Replacement Training, a program devised by Arnold Goldstein of Syracuse University, is one method that teaches students to practice other than aggressive solutions to issues.


 David Aday, a professor of Sociology at the college and an expert in the field of student violence, agrees, though he would encourage peer intervention groups, which emphasize and teach tolerance. Better, he says, to teach tolerance from the very beginning than to have to deal with the effects of intolerance later.


There is little doubt that our schools are now, and will be for the foreseeable future, filled with tensions that arise from racial and class oriented conflicts. Rather than ex post facto zero tolerance, perhaps the answer to resolving such conflicts lies in prevention and the teaching of tolerance. According to Lynda Poller, the Assistant Principal at Berkeley, a class dealing with bullying will soon be implemented at that middle school. Let’s hope it works.   









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