EDITORIAL: A lesson in what’s wrong with zero tolerance

The criticism that rained down on the Madison School District on its way to becoming a national embarrassment should drive the last nail into the coffin of zero tolerance.

But then, bad ideas are hard to kill, and zero tolerance will probably live on zombielike in schools and other institutions as a myth that just saying no makes everything right in the world.

The myth would work for a society of robots. For one that has human intelligence, it undermines basic fairness and justice while failing to correct the bad behavior its seeks to regulate, all of which was on display in the Madison zero-tolerance disaster.

Blind obedience to a zero-tolerance policy resulted in administrators of Madison West High School firing a security guard who, in an irony that brought nationwide attention to the affair, was a target of a racial slur.

Marlon Anderson was escorting a misbehaving male student out of the high school building when the boy repeatedly called Anderson, who is an African American, the N-word. Responding to the verbal abuse, Anderson used the N-word in an attempt to counsel the student to refrain from using it.

“Every type of N-word you can think of, that’s what he was calling me,” Anderson explained. “I said, do not call me that name. I’m not your N-word. Do not call me that.”

Anderson had stepped in after the student pushed an assistant principal and threatened to beat her up. According to news reports, the assistant principal turned on her two-way radio so that other administrators could hear what was being said by the guard and the student.

Several days later, Anderson was fired for violating the N-word zero-tolerance policy.

Uproar followed. More than 1,000 West High School students protested. A former U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, condemned the firing in these words: “The Madison School District needs to grow a brain and a heart really quickly. I’ve seen some crazy things over the years, but this is one of the worst.”

The entertainer Cher even got into the act, offering to pay Anderson’s legal fees if he sued the school district.

The attempt by the West High School principal to defend the firing in a letter to parents unintentionally pointed to the reason zero tolerance does more harm than good. “Regardless of context or circumstance,” the letter stated, “racial slurs are not acceptable in our schools.”

Regardless of context or circumstance? Context and circumstance can’t be dismissed with the word “regardless.” They can’t be disregarded. Context and circumstance affect every human act. No sound judgment of behavior can be made without them. No thinking person aware of the context and circumstance of the security guard’s firing could consider it justified. Only zero tolerance could justify it, which in itself is an indictment of the policy.

The Madison School Board eventually came to that conclusion and ordered West High to give Anderson back his job.

Zero tolerance, like many decisions that prove to be mistakes, was adopted in Madison with good intentions. Madison schools had experienced incidents involving the use of racial epithets by students and even some staff members, resulting in parent protests. Zero tolerance, if nothing else, signalled a stand against bigoted behavior.

The harmful consequences of zero tolerance in American schools were well known before Madison captured the unflattering limelight—thanks to such nationally reported absurdities as second graders charged with juvenile crimes for pointing paper guns at one another, a kindergartner expelled for having a toy gun in his back pack and handcuffed elementary students hauled away by police for violating a school’s zero-tolerance policy.

The enduring message of zero tolerance is that the judgment of people in authority can’t be trusted. Zero tolerance undermines authority.

If that isn’t enough to start a movement to bring an end to zero tolerance, there is this: Zero tolerance doesn’t work.

A definitive study by Kimberly Knesting of the University of Wisconsin and Russel Skiba of Indiana University entitled “Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence” concluded: “There is no convincing documentation that zero tolerance has in any way contributed to school safety or improved student behavior.”

If the zero-tolerance policy in place for years at the Madison high school was effective, the abusive student would not have used the forbidden word, the well-meaning security guard would not have lost his job and the school district would not have embarrassed itself.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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