‘Zero tolerance’ became a familiar term in the 1990’s as an outgrowth of a belief that the inflexible enforcement of minor laws would prevent the commission of major crimes. While this theory of law enforcement has been largely discredited the remnants remain in our school systems and in the wider society.
At first blush the concept behind zero tolerance seems reasonable; knowing that the consequences of a minor offense are certain and irrevocable is a strong deterrent. Zero tolerance seeks to classify human behavior as definitely good or bad without the consideration of extenuating circumstances that constitute the vast gray area between the two extremes.
To my thinking adoption of zero tolerance policies is a cowardly abdication of responsibility for those who are subjected to them by those who impose them. When a school district or scout troop or soccer league equates specific actions of a student, scout or player with irrevocable sanctions they have shirked their responsibility to consider the motive and nature of the actions or to offer any path of redemption.
Anyone who undertakes the responsibility to lead young people assumes the responsibility to make every effort to understand the nature of their developmental abilities, their emotional and mental capacities and the way they relate to the world. Imposing a policy of irrevocable, inflexible consequences relieves authority of any responsibility to exercise understanding, compassion, empathy or justice. Even worse it teaches by example that authority is an unthinking, irresistible force that will not yield to reason.
The very things that make us human guarantee that there will be a broad spectrum of extenuating circumstances behind any of our actions. Those of us in authority have the responsibility to examine and understand the thought processes, emotions and motives behind actions before we judge them. We should not abandon this most basic responsibility to the inanity of zero tolerance policies.