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Kicking the Nasty Habit of Zero Tolerance

By November 1, 2012April 14th, 2022One Comment

Published by — There’s no magic place where bad kids can go and get better at learning how to live well in their community.

Just the phrase “zero tolerance” sounds un-American.  At least I would hope so.

Originally, “zero tolerance” was the sound bite that get-tough politicians in the 1990s swore would be their response to the fallout from the crack cocaine epidemic.  Drugs and crime were on the rise; the public was frightened.

In schools, zero-tolerance policies were supposed to apply only to weapons and drugs.  But with a speed that rivaled the unstoppable spread of an invasive species, schools extended their lack of tolerance to all manner of misbehavior in school.

Suddenly, and with great righteousness, school staff thought nothing of tossing troubled kids onto behavior garbage dumps.  Since the 1990s numbers have soared in segregated “behavior-disordered” classrooms, school suspensions, expulsions and ultimately prisons.

The U.S. has 4.5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Our intolerance towards people who misbehave has created a lens through which we see a far higher proportion of bad people than do other countries.  We deal with them harshly, even mercilessly, and at great expense.

At this point zero tolerance is like the water that fish can’t see.  The attitude has become a deeply-rooted, bad habit among many adults.  As one teacher barked in my face, “I teach the good kids.  I don’t give the bad kids the time of day.  They shouldn’t be here.”

The doers of beastly behavior deserve to be physically and mentally dismissed.

Except that there’s no place where bad kids go and get better.  Suspensions and locked facilities just make them worse.

And wherever they go, it’s temporary.  They come back.  If ex-juvenile offenders return to their community too old for school, at least they won’t burden the school staff.  But these still-uncivilized people might well have unruly children of their own.  They never did learn how to live appropriately in a community because they were removed from theirs.  Nor did that community or their family get help learning how to deal with them.

With zero tolerance, nothing useful happens.

So I am thrilled to report that recently large numbers of school staff, officials and the public are starting to question the collateral damage of “zero tolerance.”

Yes, tons of research damning intolerance has been written into reports collecting dust on shelves.  Until lately.  Suddenly the data and the complaints of those researchers are being heard.

My evidence comes from Education Week, education’s industry trade magazine.  Just recently, they published long cover stories on two philosophies that offer alternatives to zero tolerance.  It’s huge that these approaches are gaining traction and EdWeek’s attention.

The two cover pieces were about:  Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) and Restorative Practices, also called Restorative Justice.

PBIS, developed in the 1980s, is endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.  All states have technical-support partners — colleges or public agencies — easily accessible through their website.

In brief, PBIS schools explicitly teach clear behavior expectations to the kids, partly by giving them pleasant experiences of having done things right.  PBIS administrators work out an incentive system — usually points that can be cashed in for healthy snacks or fun supplies at a school store, or privileges like getting a pass on a homework assignment.  PBIS encourages teachers to “catch” problem kids in the act of doing something right, to reward that behavior.

By contrast, restorative practices does not yet have the official blessing of the feds.  But the internet has tons of material, though much of it is from overseas.  (Full disclosure:  I am a huge fan of restorative practices.)

Restorative practices use simple techniques borrowed mainly from ancient tribal circles.  It focuses on the health of the community as a whole, giving every member a voice in what happens, kids and adults, offenders and victims.  In small groups or circles, misbehaving kids explain what they were thinking when they did the dumb thing.  Sometimes there’s more to the story than the obvious, but often the group agrees on a restitution plan that will bring the offender back into the community’s good graces.  (Vermont has a restorative juvenile justice system, fyi.)

The two approaches are different, but they share the idea of separating the doer from the deed, the sinner from the sin.  Both alternatives work to teach clear behavior expectations to the kids.  Both realize that stigmatized kids will never belong to or cooperate with a community that looks down on them.

These kinder philosophies tackle the tough work of re-making the lenses with which kids and adults look at each other, weaning everyone off of the kick-out culture itself.

Their message is: “I care about you.  It is my job, if for no other reason, to invest in your success and to believe that you have genius and goodness in you.  But remember the day you were helpful to your math teacher and how you did such a good job of holding your temper yesterday?  We all would appreciate more of that from you and much less swearing and acting out.  Help us help you see your greatness.”

Like it or not, schools are the principal change-agents of troubled kids’ lives.  Schools can redirect the trajectory of unpromising lives.

Developing healthier attitudes towards misbehavior will take time.  Still, let’s hope the end of zero tolerance really is at hand.  Where you see it, call it out.  Help make it stop.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.