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January 13, 2007 - Globe and Mail (CAN)

OpEd: Why Tolerance For 'Zero Tolerance' Is Running Out

Whether It's On Drugs, Bullying, Weapons Or Even Littering, The Pendulum Is Swinging To A Less Rigid Response

By Deborah Jones, a Vancouver-based writer.

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Dale Sabean is an unlikely rebel. The superintendent of the Western School Board in Prince Edward Island is flaunting a "zero-tolerance" law by allowing students to smoke cigarettes on school property.

Despite the threat of charges, Mr. Sabean designated an outside smoking zone at the high school in Elmsdale. Smoking is bad for kids, but the rigid new law is worse, he said, because last fall, after the province passed it, about 150 kids moved to a busy highway to smoke. "If we were to enforce the legislation, we would be saying to these youngsters, 'Go stand on the shoulder of the road,' " he said.

The tiny Maritimes school board has become part of a growing backlash against the concept of "zero tolerance," joining the Canadian and American Bar Associations, American and Canadian civil-liberties unions, the American Psychological Association, numerous academics and, lately, opposition politicians in Ottawa.

Anti-zero-tolerance websites are also springing up, among them, which calls itself a "reality-based" approach to teens.

Why is the once-popular policy of zero tolerance to drugs, weapons and other social ills falling out of favour? "People do a lot of stupid things with zero-tolerance policies," said Cecil Reynolds, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Texas A&M University.

Dr. Reynolds chaired a task force for the American Psychological Association whose report cited U.S. cases such as a 10-year-old girl being kicked out of school for two months because her mother packed a small knife with her lunch so she could cut up an apple and a sick six-year-old who was suspended after coming to school with Tylenol.

People who initially approved of "zero tolerance" -- such as parents fearful for their children's safety -- have found it simply too rigid, Dr. Reynolds said.

"Even the Center for Safe Schools has said zero tolerance policies don't create safer schools," he said. "In fact, schools with zero-tolerance policies tend to be schools students find oppressive and don't do as well academically."

Criminologist Neil Boyd said such policies start with good intentions and quickly become abusive.

"A zero-tolerance point of view means seeing things in black and white, when the world is shades of grey," said the professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. "Often what this means is you get people who are zealots imposing their own view of reality."

It has been more than three decades since the catchy, malleable phrase arrived in North America's lexicon. Zero tolerance can be traced back to U.S. president Richard Nixon's "war on drugs" in 1969. By the early 1990s, zero-tolerance policies had become entrenched in educationalinstitutions throughout the U.S. and, to a lesser degree, in Canada.

Schools and colleges removed disciplinary discretion from teachers and principals who caught kids cheating, drinking, smoking or bullying. They laid out minimum punishments that were often as harsh as suspension or expulsion.

Today, on the Internet, countless online businesses advertise zero tolerance of spam. In the labour sector, unions commonly declare zero tolerance of workplace bullying. In Britain, local governments have legislated zero tolerance of "litter louts" and shabby buildings. Canada's national parks have zero tolerance of berry pickers, while in sports, soccer's World Cup organizers swore to have zero tolerance of technical failures.

The term even resonates in the fashion world: Because of public alarm about eating disorders among models skinny enough to wear "size zero," a new lobby has humorously declared war on "size-zero tolerance."

When the jokes start, it's clear that a movement has lost its gravitas. In fact, zero tolerance has become almost meaningless.

When an RCMP internal analysis critical of Vancouver's supervised drug-injection site became public late last year, the federal police force's "zero tolerance" against illegal drugs was loudly criticized by scientists, doctors, police and politicians.

Thomas Kerr, lead researcher of several studies on injection-drug use and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, called zero tolerance "a well-documented failure." He said the RCMP's analysis was factually wrong: "If this is the source of information that informs government decisions, that's embarrassing and that's disturbing."

The law-and-order politics that gave birth to the phrase remain popular within some sectors of the population. This year, the federal Conservative regime is expected to try to introduce tougher mandatory minimum sentences for gun-related crimes, and revamp dangerous-offender laws to make it easier to jail indefinitely people with three serious convictions (a variation on U.S. "three strikes, you're out" crime policies).

But despite the focus on law-and-order policies among federal candidates in 2006, crackdown efforts by the minority Conservatives so far have been stymied by the opposition parties, whose critics have called the proposed legislation "ideological."

The Canadian Bar Association has taken a strong stance against the Conservative gestures toward zero tolerance.

Said Vancouver lawyer Greg DelBigio, chair of the group's criminal justice section, "I think it's a phrase that should not be used. What does it mean? Does it mean every person that commits a criminal offence, no matter the circumstance and no matter how trivial, gets prosecuted?"

This fall, the national lawyers association opposed the Conservative effort to introduce zero-tolerance-style mandatory minimum sentences for gun offences under Bill C-10, pointing out that Canada's violent-crime rate is stable.

"If the intent is to encourage harsher sentences, judges already have sentencing tools to achieve that goal, if the offence and the offender warrant an unusually harsh response," said an association press release. "Bill C-10 will remove trial judges' discretion to impose a fair and appropriate sentence."

Among those on the front lines of society's varied "wars" on crime, drugs, cheating, bullying, smoking or any number of criminal offences, the zero-tolerance mentality seems increasingly vulnerable to tolerance -- or at least common sense.

In Vancouver, even the police force has largely scrapped such policies and supported the treatment of drug addiction as a health and social problem.

Many school boards keep zero tolerance on the books. But according to Irene Lanzinger, vice-president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation and a long-time teacher of high-school math and science: "My experience as a teacher is that it is not adhered to."

Many teachers faced with unruly students like the notion. "I have heard the arguments for zero tolerance and I have some sympathy for it," Ms. Lanzinger said. But she said that it doesn't work. "The kids who are engaged in activities that are unacceptable are often the most vulnerable kids, who come from the most difficult backgrounds."

Mr. Sabean refuses even to accept the standard definition of the no-nonsense phrase. "Zero tolerance in my mind means you respond . . . but that doesn't obligate you to take a specific plan of action," he said. "I think there is some discretion."

In fact, discretion is precisely what zero tolerance was designed to stamp out.

In his 2001 book Culture of Control, New York criminologist David Garland writes that social thinkers believed in the 1970s that North American and British societies would become increasingly permissive.

Instead -- even as crime rates fell -- there was a backlash against permissiveness. For three decades, voters in the U.S. and Britain consistently elected governments supportive of punitive law-and-order policies. Dr. Garland suggests that the change was sparked by unrest over the quickening pace of economic and cultural change.

Dr. Reynolds added that crowding may be partly to blame, noting that in the U.S. the population recently topped 300 million. "People feel a need for putting more controls in place when there's population growth," he said.

Other factors probably include the erosion of religious, community and extended-family support networks, increasing job mobility, dual working-parent families and migration by rural dwellers to cities.

Demands for zero tolerance may also be fuelled by the media, through stories about horrific crimes or shocking problems in schools and colleges, such as last fall's Dawson College shootings in Montreal. But in fact most statistics suggest that the crime rate is falling, and that the vast majority of people are peaceful.

"Why are we scared?" Mr. DelBigio asked. Instead of making simplistic calls for more law and order, he said, public leaders and politicians should "disabuse the public of inaccurate notions they might have with respect to crime."

Dr. Boyd, the criminologist, believes that the pendulum is now swinging toward tolerance. "People have begun in most areas to realize how complex all solutions are."

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