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Erik Pistol
September 19, 2002

Zero Tolerance is a modern day example of the old adage, the road to hell paved with good intentions. It was originally proclaimed as a policy to improve the working environment by adopting a one size fits all approach to workplace discipline; but the entire concept has degenerated. The Harvard University Zero Tolerance Project Report  [1] has strongly criticized the one size fits all method.

The scaling-down of zero tolerance policies is a difficult task because the concept appears easy to understand. Zero tolerance gives an illusory impression of a strong moral stance being implemented with the noble objective of tackling serious misbehavior problems. The actual results witnessed in practice tell a different story entirely.

The assumption behind zero tolerance is that it is applied to control serious anti-social behavior. But there are a legion of case histories which surface with monotonous regularity in the media, describing cases that should not be considered worthy of any disciplinary action whatsoever - let alone the harsh punishments that have been applied for trivial events.

Do you doubt this? The Harvard University Zero Tolerance report refers to "The Devastating Consequences Of Zero Tolerance." The report states: "A strong body of compelling research indicates that these get-tough disciplinary measures often fail" ... "and, in many cases, their application simply defies commonsense."

The harassment legislation states that the intention of the accused is not relevant. Well let us apply this legal theory to the actual cases that have resulted: the intentions of the lawmakers and of the courts do not count when assessing the results of their new-fangled legal concepts.

What results have the lawmakers obtained with the zero tolerance theory?

A 10-year-old girl at McElwain Elementary in Thornton, Colorado, was one of a group of girls who asked a certain boy on the playground if he liked her. The boy complained to a teacher with the result that school administrators, citing the district's "zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy", decided to suspend her.

Another widely-reported case is that of 6-year-old Johnathan Prevette, who received a suspension from school and was excluded from an ice-cream party. His crime? He kissed a young classmate on the cheek. This conduct was deemed as sexual harassment.

In Florida, a policeman walking by an empty parked car observed a table knife on the rear seat. The female honor student in Florida who had the table knife in her car was arrested and suspended. She was labeled as someone who might be dangerous. School officials insisted that she receive some sort of indoctrination in order to "prove" to them that she was not a danger to fellow students.

And they call this justice in the 21st century?

It is not the intentions of the lawmakers that need to be judged by the tax-paying public. It is the results obtained. These case histories, which are typical, speak volumes. A fundamental concept of harassment law is that "it is not the intention of the accused male that matters, it is the perception of the accuser". We can, and should, apply the same concept in assessing the results obtained by the legal system.

Many will be tempted to the conclusion that there are other factors at work in implementing these legal theories. Many will draw the conclusion that the judiciary are attempting to play the hero, with little or no care as to whether the innocent are hit by these policies. The almost total lack of recourse within the law for those falsely accused is a clear indicator of the intention of the legal system.

I do not question the need for clear, firm limits. My conviction is that certain behaviors are not acceptable. On the other hand, there appears no reasonable definition of what constitutes serious misbehavior and, in addition, no defined methodology for investigation. Perhaps a penalty for investigators who deliberately exaggerate would rein in the excessive zero tolerance witch-hunts. Also an enforceable requirement on investigators to investigate properly and fully would be a valuable addition, reducing the excesses of zero tolerance.

Some might argue that no excuses can ever be accepted because they weaken the system and provide loopholes for the less honorable. However, this decision is one that should be taken by the investigators. All too frequently the investigators adopt a "let's see what sticks" approach and talk up the case. I see few merits in a system that penalizes so many as sacrificial lambs.

Zero tolerance is turning every citizen into a criminal. All that is lacking is someone to raise an accusation. That is all it takes.

In an article for Education Digest, entitled "Zap Zero Tolerance," Russ Skiba and Reece Peterson concluded that zero tolerance policies were more effective at providing cover for administrators than students. [2]

Zero tolerance was developed in response to legitimate concerns that cannot be ignored. These concerns may well be valid on occasion. But few would argue that the above cases warranted strong disciplinary action. However, when the solution creates more difficulty than the original problem, it is time to abandon it for something better. At present any liar can manipulate the law with ease. It is the ease with which these misrepresentations are pushed through that is offensive to Americans.


1. The Harvard Zero Tolerance Project Report

2. Zap Zero Tolerance. Education Digest, April 2000, By Russ Skiba, director of the Institute for Child Study at Indiana University and Reece Peterson, vice president of the National Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders.

2002 - Erik Pistol - All Rights Reserved

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Eric Pistol is the webmaster of  - A website describing the excesses of the zero tolerance approach to alleged sexual harassment in the workplace.









"The assumption behind zero tolerance is that it is applied to control serious anti-social behavior. ..."

"Zero tolerance gives an illusory impression...

"The female honor student in Florida who had the table knife in her car was arrested and suspended. She was labeled as someone who might be dangerous."