Wednesday, 7 March 2018

My thoughts on zero-tolerance behaviour policy

What a miserable phrase ‘zero-tolerance’ is.  Its very existence condemns the concept of tolerance as something weak, haphazard or undesirable, something that ironically is not to be tolerated.  In a legal setting the phrase conjures up the harsh narcotics laws in the USA in the last 30 years, or perhaps the ASBO in the UK.  Zero-tolerance policing was a popular trend in the late 1990s and 2000s in both the US and Northern Europe, designed to combat anti-social behaviour and ‘crack down’ on persistent crime.  The policy in the USA led to a great deal of criticism, which is nicely summed up in this New York Times article of 2017.

In a school setting the connotations are more immediate and more specific – currently any talk of zero-tolerance schools will lead directly to the most famous proponents and examples, some of which are almost perpetually under fire from segments of the education community, and defended by others, often robustly, occasionally aggressively.  I won’t name them here as there’s simply no need – I am more interested in the semantics of the term ‘zero-tolerance’ and its impact on the world of education than I am in trying to ‘shame’ schools.

Tolerance, I feel, is a virtue that the privileged should seek to have in their dealings with the under-privileged, first and foremost.  It is a form of patience that those in positions of power should have with those who do not share that power, that majorities should have with minorities and that the wealthy should have with the less well-off.  It can work the other way, but primarily tolerance in my view is a balancer – a means of adjusting the scales to ensure those without privilege of any sort can still operate in a biased system.
In practice this means that a functioning society that seeks greater equality requires tolerance for difference, for unconformity, for any manifestation of ‘otherness’ at all.  Without tolerance, the imbalance will grow as the privileged benefit further and the under-privileged get more and more marginalised and maligned.  As you can probably tell, I disagree entirely with the idea that tolerance is a sort of ‘resigned’ dealing with unattractive or undesirable people or ideas with a shake of the head, begrudging them and the effort taken to work with them.  A tolerant person, I believe, is objectively better than an intolerant one, and I make no apology for thinking that.

So a zero-tolerance school is one that has eschewed the virtue of tolerance in order to attempt to improve progress and outcomes for all students, and in doing so has eschewed its commitment to providing a balance in its treatment of its students, whilst simultaneously claiming to be improving the balance – we have a potential paradox.  The issue lies in the difference between treatment of children and the outcomes of children.  Zero-tolerance policies and their effects (disruptive students removed from lessons or even schooling) are focused entirely on outcomes: getting the remaining children the best possible results.  Clearly this is not an evil motive; however, it neglects the more immediate issue of the treatment of children in the here and now, and this is where ethics and morality and indeed equality come into play.  This utilitarian focus purely on outcomes for the many ignores the needs of the few, but these few don’t disappear.  They don’t cease to exist, and these students dispatched by a zero-tolerance approach will grow up and will be members of society – members who have potentially lost their stake in society.

These students are often minorities in one way or another – potentially low-income, or have made little progress since primary school, or from a non-academic background, or have disinterested parents.  Removing tolerance for these people is removing their shot at any kind of equality, removing their chance of achieving some kind of normality.  It is having no patience for their individual difficulties, no patience with their behaviour as it impinges on the progress of others.  It is a short-sighted, limited policy that will inevitably cause later problems when these students grow into adulthood knowing that the system has no patience with them or the difficulties they have faced.  It would, I suppose, be great if all bad behaviour was simply selfishness, naughtiness with no root cause or societal basis – then perhaps we could simply wash our hands of these people as they have made the choice to behave in that manner; but unfortunately the world is not as tidy and easy as that.  Unfortunately the world is terribly complex, and the people within it even more so, and a zero-tolerance behaviour policy is one that immediately and abruptly removes any mitigating factors, brutally exposing a vulnerable minority to the same standards that far more resilient and well-adjusted individuals can meet with relative ease.

I am driven here most of all by my autism.  I hear too many reports of policies that demand, for example, eye contact and have a zero-tolerance attitude towards it.  Autistic people like myself find eye contact extremely difficult in a way that non-autistic people would struggle to understand, and this difficulty can in a child manifest in very difficult behaviour if handled poorly – we are a classic minority with specific requirements, and I would argue tolerance and patience with our particular needs is not much to ask for given the fact that we deserve as good a chance at life as anyone else.

I hope that the vogue for zero-tolerance behaviour policies has a short lifespan.  Education should be dedicated to balancing a precariously imbalanced system, not maintaining the biases that exist in society, and tolerance should not be a dirty word.

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