Tuesday, April 14, 2009

THE FLIP SIDE OF ZERO TOLERANCE

Marc Fisher, Washington Post - We don't really know what we want. That's the conclusion of a social psychologist who decided to test just how committed parents and others are to single-sanction, zero-tolerance, tough-love punishment regimens of the kind that many schools have adopted to fight drug use by teenagers.

Colgate University psychologist Kevin Carlsmith concluded that people fail to recognize that a zero-tolerance policy that seems simple and effective in theory will violate their sense of justice when they see it in practice. And that's exactly the response I've been getting to my column last week about Josh Anderson, the Fairfax high school junior who killed himself on the eve of a disciplinary hearing that was likely to have ended with his expulsion for being caught on campus with a small amount of marijuana.

I've heard from hundreds of parents whose kids -- like Josh -- have gotten caught up in a punishment system that fails to distinguish between drug users and dealers. . .

Confronted with people going to jail for decades for stealing a kiddie video for a Christmas present or for lifting a Snickers bar, Californians turned against the "three strikes, you're out" legislation they had enthusiastically supported in theory. Likewise, parents who support zero-tolerance policies tend to reject them when they see some dumb teen getting expelled for acting like the dodo-head many 17-year-olds become.

In a fascinating postscript, Carlsmith asked whether a school with a zero-tolerance policy had a worse or less severe problem with drug use than a school with a more flexible approach. Those surveyed thought the zero-tolerance school had the more severe problem . . .

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