Zero Tolerance Is Never the Answer

As calls for Senator Franken’s resignation rose yesterday, there was talk about the need for zero tolerance of sexual misconduct. For example, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) tweeted: “We must commit to zero tolerance—which is where I believe we as a country and Congress should be—and that means Senator Franken should step down.”

The arena in which I am most familiar with the use of zero tolerance is schools. It began as a slogan over 20 years ago to suggest that schools should draw a clear line about what was unacceptable behavior and administer harsh consequences to any student who crossed it. The entire effort was a huge failure that became the feeder for the school-to-prison pipeline. Here is an ABC News report on zero tolerance that aired back in 2003.

Since then there has been a lot of research documenting that zero tolerance was not effective in making schools safer and that it had terrible effects on students (especially black and brown boys) being funneled into the juvenile justice system.

Supporters of zero tolerance tended to suggest that critics were in favor of simply ignoring bad behavior. But as the report cited above demonstrates, there are much more effective ways of dealing with students and ensuring school safety.

The problem with zero tolerance in the schools was that it set up a system in which minor offenses were treated as seriously as major ones. Here is an interesting example:

In April of 2013, 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot was arrested after causing an explosion on school grounds. If this sounds like another case of how terrible dangerous our schools have become, well, the explosion was relatively minor; okay, it could only be called an explosion in the strictest possible sense of the word. Kiera was conducting a science experiment to see what would happen if she put toilet bowl cleaner together with aluminum foil inside a soda bottle. As you may have suspected, it causes a chemical reaction resulting a small pop- enough to blow off the bottle’s cap. This was apparently enough to catch the attention of school security, who called the police.

Despite there obviously being no ill intent whatsoever and Kiera’s status as a model student, she was summarily expelled from school, arrested and charged with possession and discharge of a weapon- a soda bottle- on school grounds. In an article written for the ACLU’s website, Kiera protests that although the charges were eventually dropped, she’s now forced to attend a school for troubled youths where she’s made fun of, mocked as a “terrorist” and presented with zero academic challenges.

What a travesty!

Marian Wright Edelman gave some other disturbing examples:

Would you suspend a student from school for four months for sharpening his pencil without permission and giving the teacher a “threatening” look when asked to sit down?…

Would you expel a student from school permanently because her possession of an antibiotic violated your school’s zero-tolerance drug policy?

I worry that this is where we are headed with calls for zero tolerance of sexual misconduct. As with students in school, there are behaviors that clearly cross a line, like taking a 14 year-old-girl to your home in the woods, undressing and asking her to feel your penis. That violates criminal statutes. But that is not the same thing as squeezing someone’s waist while taking a photo—which is actually less serious than squeezing her butt. All of those things could be problematic, but zero tolerance suggests that we treat them all same.

Many of the charges against Franken fall into a category that, due to patriarchy, are about crossing boundaries that haven’t been clearly defined. That is why, in order to deal with these issues, it is important to talk about them openly. Zero tolerance simply shuts all of that down.

When it comes to these gray areas, there is also the issue of context. As we see with Kiera’s case, it matters a lot whether she was doing a simple science experiment or trying to cause an explosion that could damage property or hurt someone.

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who always greeted me with a hug and kiss on the cheek. I never felt violated by that. As a matter of fact, just the opposite. I experienced it as a demonstration of his warmth. But I wasn’t surprised when he was fired from his job as the executive director of a nonprofit agency. Greeting women who work for you with a hug and a kiss is problematic because context matters.

At this point, a lot of people (especially politicians) are trying to position themselves as “tough” on this issue by gravitating to simplistic responses like zero tolerance. Those of us who are actually interested in real change need to speak up on behalf of responses that help all of us grapple with a difficult issue and set the stage for some common understanding of a complex problem. We shouldn’t settle for anything less.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.