Zero Tolerance = Zero Help
BY Bethany Woolman
June 01 2011 2:15 PM ET
You’re reading this, so I’m going to assume you probably already care about bullying. You don’t need me to tell you that almost 85% of LGBT students are verbally harassed at school or that 40% are physically harassed. You know in your bones that schools are not safe for LGBT kids today. So you also probably know that when it comes to stopping bullying, “zero tolerance” is everyone’s new catchphrase.
Zero tolerance rhetoric is everywhere --— in our media, our laws, our politics. Show me a Glee enthusiast who didn’t feel for Kurt Hummel when he announced he was leaving his public high school to transfer to a school with a “zero tolerance, no-bullying policy.” Concerned parents everywhere are calling for zero Ttolerance antibullying bills to be introduced in their home states. And at the recent White House summit on bullying, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius asserted that zero tolerance antibullying policies in schools were “absolutely OK.”
So as a young queer woman who knows how damaging schoolyard homophobia can be, why am I concerned?
Contrary to popular belief, zero tolerance antibullying policies are bad for LGBT youth. These policies, while they sound great, don’t actually improve school safety and can end up doing more harm than good to LGBT kids and other vulnerable students. In education-speak, zero tolerance is code for automatic punishment. Schools have zero tolerance policies for a range of things: drugs, alcohol, fighting — the list goes on. Under these policies, students are usually suspended or expelled, no questions asked, for prohibited actions. Sometimes these policies mandate automatic involvement of the police.
According to a task force of the American Psychologist Association, zero tolerance “has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety.” This is partly because under zero tolerance policies, school administrators become bureaucratically hog-tied. They lose the ability to treat kids as individuals, use their own best judgment, or consider extenuating circumstances.
Abuses and misuses of zero tolerance policies are all too common. In 2009, the Supreme Court heard the case of a girl who was actually strip-searched under her school’s zero tolerance antidrug policy after being accused of carrying extra-strength Advil. Last year in North Carolina, a star student was suspended for the entirety of her senior year because she brought a small paring knife to school to cut up an apple for lunch. These are not isolated incidents. Now, imagine the school officials who made these poor discipline decisions trying to deal with an LGBT kid who has lashed out against his bully in an act of self-defense. Would they have the capacity to address the situation with nuance and common sense?
The surprising truth is that across the nation, too many LGBT kids are already being unfairly subjected to harsh discipline like suspension and expulsion.