Zero Tolerance Policy

Critique and graphic by: Chris Talbot-Heindl

By now, everyone has probably heard of Erin Cox, the captain of a Massachusetts high school volleyball team who was suspended and stripped of her captain’s position for being a designated driver to a friend who called her after attending a party.

The school, North Andover, has stated that although Erin hadn’t attended the party and was not drinking, the school has a zero tolerance policy and therefore, the consequences of attending the party where others were drinking are the same as if she had gotten hammered.

Never mind that she may have prevented a drunk driving incident by doing the right thing.

All I can say is, zero tolerance policies are absolute bullshit.

Zero tolerance policies ignore the complexity of situations or extenuating circumstances. They tend to egregiously punish those who are not at fault.

The idea behind a zero tolerance policy is that if you know you are going to be punished regardless of how or why a rule is broken, you will take unreasonable steps to avoid it.  This means saying “no” to being a designated driver for a drunk friend, it means going to work or school with the plague if there is a zero tolerance attendance policy, this means bombing an entire nation for acts of some radicals if your country has a zero tolerance terrorism policy.

This means meting out culpability whether or not it is deserved. It means a witch-hunt and sometimes unreasonably harsh penalties for those who do not deserve them. And in some cases, it unfairly punishes those who are already at a disadvantage.

Let’s take the example of zero tolerance attendance policies. While this may prevent your average employee or student from taking sick days to play Animal Crossing for days on end (I’ve seen this with a former roommate of mine. Apparently that game is incredibly addictive!), it punishes those who already disadvantaged considerably more: the chronically ill.

I have an autoimmune deficiency disease. That means, I take ill easily and will stay sick longer than your average person. My body gets confused when it is invaded by a bacteria or virus and begins to attack its own cells. So, on top of getting the flu, I’ll also get a urinary tract infection (if my body decides to attack my urinary tract) or sores on the surface of my skin (if my body decides to attack my epidermis). My body spends so much time attacking itself, it takes longer for me to shake the flu than it would your average person.

Zero tolerance policies mean that those who are sick may come in to school or work anyway because they don’t want to lose their jobs. The opportunity for me to get sick and stay sick has just become insurmountable. It is now inevitable. I’m not blowing off work or school; I’m not playing Animal Crossing. I’m suffering. Yet, I will likely be expelled or fired.

If we are still talking about me, I am also a dedicated student and worker. I, in all intents and purposes, am married to whatever it is that I do. It is my purpose in life at the moment and therefore who I am. I will bend over backwards for a job or school. But the zero tolerance policy means that regardless of these facts, it’s really only a matter of time before I find myself unfairly unemployed.

Now three entities are negatively affected –my husband, my employer, and myself. All because of a rigid zero tolerance policy.

Let’s look at the zero tolerance policy with drugs. Has the war on drugs significantly reduced the amount of drugs on the streets? No. Has the war on drugs significantly increased the amount of people in jails? Yes. Are most of those people of color (even though statistics have shown that the majority of drug users are actually white)? Yes. Are most of those people jailed for marijuana usage, which has been shown to be a harmless, often times beneficial, and totally non-violent “drug?” Yes.

And so, what has this zero tolerance policy accomplished? A disproportionate number of people of color are jailed for a harmless, non-violent substance. The amount of drugs on the street that are harmful have not changed.

Let’s look at the United States policy on terrorism. In the 1980’s, Reagan famously created a zero tolerance policy claiming “there will be no negotiations with terrorists of any kind” This statement was made and has been enforced with extreme force when a terrorist attack occurs whether or not we actually find a target that should be held responsible.

When members of the extremist group Al-Qaeda toppled the twin towers, the United States held an entire country culpable – Iraq – and began a war that still continues. Studies actually show that incentivizing peace rather than responding with violence reduces terrorism. Attacks such as the ongoing war actually reinforce the anger from a small terrorist cell and spreads it to the general public who are unjustly undergoing the punishment on behalf of the small number of extremists who did the act.

So, before you put forth a zero tolerance policy, recognize that you are further disenfranchising the already disenfranchised, you are not actually receiving a benefit (as zero tolerance policies have been shown to not work), and others will perceive you as they currently perceive North Andover High School and the U.S.’s continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: as an asshole.