Is it time to rethink the term ‘zero tolerance’? (mini-Rant warning)

It feels like this term has lost all meaning and I wonder if it is time to find another way to express this concept.

I was reading an article about a prisoner in Quebec who was posting photos to Facebook of himself with expensive liquor. The only response to this from authorities is, well we have a zero tolerance policy for that. Great, so what is the procedure that will be followed? What procedure fell through that resulted in him being able to access the stuff in the first place? (Not to mention the failures in security that led to two prison breaks recently)  I think the original idea behind the concept had some merit, but now it lulls us into a false sense of security and takes the humanity out of dealing with problems (using judgment, experience, common sense).

Almost daily you can find news items of children being bullied at school, but don’t worry! The school and school Board have a zero tolerance policy for bullying. Oh ! Phew, I was worried for a second there that someone might actually do it anyway. Unfortunately, we also read a lot of stories of ridiculous cases where schools, for example, have followed their policies on cases where a touch of thought and a speck of judgment would have gone a long way to spare those involved from potentially life long impacts and those enforcing the policies from embarrassment. Cases that aren’t cut and dry (or border on the ridiculous, like children being suspended or expelled for sharing candy that someone thought was drugs) call for the use of discretion, evaluation, judgment, humility, common sense…

I remember learning about the concept of nursing judgment in school, at the time I attributed a lot of it to ‘instinct’ as well. In any profession, a certain degree of instinct or judgment is developed based on training, experience and the personality of the individual. All of these come into play when making a decision. At what point did we decide to absolve ourselves of this by creating zero tolerance policies with cut and dry responses? How many of them have enough structure in place to educate and prevent the actions that might result in severe punishment? I’m not naive about the lack of resources in a lot of cases- not enough people to supervise, not enough funds for educational materials, not enough anything (!). I mentioned humility above because I wonder if sometimes it would make sense for someone accusing another of a crime against a zero tolerance policy to reflect and recognize (if) they have made an error in judgment? I guess a little emotional intelligence would serve well here, too. When did professionals become afraid to use their expertise to make sound decisions? An educator, human resources professional, police officer (etc.) have training and experience to draw from when making decisions within or apart from a policy. Why do we take this responsibility away from them?

So then what do these policies really do? Prevent legal action? A firmly worded policy looks good, makes us feel good, but what good is it without thoughtful and appropriate action? Or thoughtful and appropriate prevention of the behavior the policy doesn’t tolerate?

I guess when it comes down to it, the issue I have is less with the term itself and more with how the concept has lost it’s strength and credibility over time. (sigh) Maybe that’s the problem- with the wonderful variability and capacity for change and growth that we have as human beings, any rigid policy doesn’t work because it removes the humanity from the equation. It removes the liability well enough though, doesn’t it?  Is it then the hyper-litigiousness of society that has created and fuels this concept?

So what do I propose as a solution? I’m unsure. When I began writing this post, I thought that I might come up with another term or concept to replace it, I haven’t. Maybe it just needs a thorough re-branding (!) and thoughtful evaluation of what is being done to prevent that for which we have zero tolerance.





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