In the short life of this blog I have taken time on two other occasions to write about zero tolerance policies. You can read those posts here and here.  I wonder if three times is a charm?  Hope so, because I am going to try again.

Let me start by saying this: It is not the policies that I have a problem with so much as the incredible, no, ridiculous results that come from applying them without thinking.  

Again we go to the wonderful world of academia to get what turns out to be a really silly result.  According to a USA Today, article: “Schools’ zero-tolerance policies tested.”  The article deals mostly with 6 year old Zachary Christie who was suspended when he brought a Swiss army knife to school.  It seems he brought it to school to use to eat his lunch.  He was proud of the “knife” because he won it for something he did as a Cub Scout as I recall.  Originally, Zachary was suspended and told he could not return to school until he completed at least 45 days in an alternative school. Let me repeat that because it needs repeating:  HE COULD NOT RETURN TO SCHOOL UNTIL HE COMPLETED AT LEAST 45 DAYS IN AN ALTERNATIVE SCHOOL!” 

Remember, this is a 6 year old Cub Scout. He had no history of misbehaving (that I am aware of) and is I suppose as good a student as a 6 year old can be.

School officials defended this result by saying “strict and consistent policies are needed to create a safe environment for students, . . . . “  OK, I’m with you on that:  we need safe schools. An administrator was also quoted as saying “we’re starting to see gangs of young men that are more violent than they were many years ago, . . . . We have to make sure that kind of behavior doesn’t have weapons involved in our schools.”  OK, I’m with you on that too: No gangs with weapons in school.

But here is the problem with this and many other zero tolerance policies:  Managers get it in their heads that they don’t have to think anymore. The punishment didn’t really fit the crime in this case, did it? 45 days for a Swiss army knife by a 6 year old kid?!  How does that make the school safer or keep weapons out of the hands of gang members? But that is what the policy said so that is what the school did. Easy. No thought, no consideration of circumstances. Nothing. Violate the policy, implement the punishment. Only this time, parents did not sit still. After stating their son’s case and calling for reasoned thinking, the school changed the policy and altered the “sentence” from  the original 45 days in an alternate school to a 3 to 5 day suspension. 

That is better, but it still does not solve the problem does it?  We can still simply apply the policy and not have to think, or in our case manage. 

Here is what really irritates me when I read stories like this. It isn’t the policy or the punishment itself. It is the people who use these policies as an excuse to avoid thinking or to avoid taking a stand or to avoid recognizing the shortcomings of a procedure like this before they apply it. 

David Resler is the vice president of the Board of Education for Zachary’s school district. Mr. Resler is quoted in the article as saying: “I’m sure we’ve got many other devious kids in the district who are trying to figure out how to duct tape a spoon and fork to their switchblades right now.” 

Now, I have done many interviews and have from time to time been misquoted or had statements taken out of context so I am willing to give Mr. Resler a break. But come on, really?!  This is a perfect example of exactly what I am talking about. Yes, a Swiss army knife and a switchblade are the same kinds of tools, but does anyone really think they are the same thing? And does Mr. Resler really think that some kid taping a spoon and fork to his switchblade is the equivalent to bringing a Swiss army knife to school to use to eat lunch?  If so, it does not seem to me that this school district needs a new policy. It seems to me they need a new vice president of the school board.

In a perfect world companies would have one policy and it would read, “Don’t do anything stupid.”  That’s it.  No more, no less. Of course we don’t live in a perfect world. We need policies and sometimes we need zero tolerance policies. Workplace violence comes to mind. Drug use is another area where they have value. But zero tolerance should never mean “Violate this policy and get fired—period.”  It should mean, “Violate this policy, get punished and we will decide what the punishment is.”  No matter what, your managers still have to manage and they still need to think before they act.  Your employees (or your students) deserve at least that much.