The Problem with Zero-Tolerance Policies

Simply dismissing students and restricting them from campus or the school has the potential to further anger the student, forfeits the school’s ability to gather more information through an assessment and takes away the potential for education and treatment for the student. O'Toole warns schools to avoid zero-tolerance policies (2000): “In a knee-jerk reaction, communities may resort to inflexible, one-size-fits-all policies on preventing or reacting to violence” (p. 2).The school is not safer when it takes an already frustrated and potentially unstable student and sends them away with little assessment, monitoring or follow-up interventions.

Scalora et ad. (2010) add from their FBI bulletin, “Do not rely on expulsion except as a last resort and unless absolutely necessary to ensure campus safety; authorities should avoid the temptation to simply expel students of concern to quickly resolve a risk. Isolated from other contingency and safety planning, this strategy sometimes can worsen matters. The final humiliation of expulsion may serve as a precipitating, or triggering, stressor in the subject’s life and propel the marginalized and hostile individual toward violence” (p. 7). Instead, a BIT/CARE team approach would encourage schools to seek to gather more information to connect with the student, understand their motivation and see the assessment and intervention as a potential developmental teaching moment that would likely keep both the student and campus community safer.

Zero-tolerance approaches can also backfire in unexpected and unwanted ways. Several years ago, a major university in the South adopted a “three strikes and you’re expelled from school” policy for underage drinking in the residence halls. The result was that the RAs in the hall stopped writing up incidents of underage drinking. No one wanted to be strike one or strike two, much less strike three. The school ended up missing out on documentation that a conduct office and BIT / CARE team would see as critical to documenting trends or dangerous behaviors. A similar consequence has occurred in schools who famously adopt a “single incident of cheating equals suspension” policy. The result is professors will either ignore what thev see as minor incidents, or thev will resolve the incidents themselves with no school-wide documentation. This allows a serial cheater to go undetected. The same consequence is analogous to much more dangerous behaviors.

Managing Community Impact

When students engage in potentially threatening behavior, the community often reacts out of fear. When they are upset and scared, students jump to conclusions and focus on the negative outcome itself, regardless of whether or not it is likelv to reoccur. Sunstein coined the term “probability neglect” in 2003 to describe this phenomenon, where the public demands legal interventions from the government or seeks clear answers for the cause. If immediate removal of a student from college is offered up by the administration to a community hungry for answers, it follows that the community then draws inaccurate conclusions that this will ultimately keep them safe.

One such example occurred on January 29, 2012, when a student at UMass Amherst distributed over 4000 letters to students living in the dormitories. The odd letter was seen as threatening by some and necessitated a law enforcement response. It is included here:


I'm pissed off at this campus. There is no way for me to get you to understand what I'm really talking about in a page of text. There is no real way to get you to care. Someone will always be freaked out by a note getting shoved under their door, someone will always jump to conclusions, someone will always be busy, and someone will always just throw this letter away without even opening it. So please, just stop and think for one quick minute.

This is what I want to have: a group of friends that do not need to rely on common interests or activities in order to foster friendship, love, and new experiences. What I mean by tills is that I don't want friends solely based on video games, haring the same taste in movies, getting drunk on a Fridav night, smoking pot or doing other drugs because we're too lazy to think of anything else, or talking for the sake of talking. I want to do new tilings, real tilings... and I don't want to do them alone.

So, mv best friend and I are going to wait in the Blue Wall everv dav next week (1/30-2/3) from 6pm-7pm or so. I do not want to drink, play video games, make small talk, etc. I do not want to be a means to an end. I want to create tilings to do on campus, and I want to create with you. I am aware that I may seem stupid, desperate, boring, or whatever negative things you wish to think of me. But the truth is that I am stupid, desperate, and boring and want to change. Call me crazy, but I don't want to do stupid shit anymore. People can change, but most are lazy. I want to find the people who can understand this, but this school is way too big and I will never have the opportunity’ to meet everyone. So, I wrote you a letter to tell vou that I am here.

I'm proof that at least one person is frustrated that this school is not providing an acceptable social atmosphere. So let's make it. If yrou want to do real tilings at this school, try to be an empathetic human being, and don't just want more people for your friend collection, please come to the Blue Wall or email us. If vou want to talk about everyone else, not yourself, this is the place for you. I want people who I can grow with, who I can create with, who I can be human with, who I can feel real feelings with, who I can love, who are real. Time is short and I'm tired of waiting. If you have felt anything while reading this, please contact me - Not for yourself, but because yrou know that's what should happen. Cut the shit, human up, and make time. Even if you don't like me, there will at least be one other person there to talk to. So think about it, that's all I ask. Look for the Green Frog. Regardless of anything I've said here: If you want a friend in any form, please contact us: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it I'm afraid too.

Remember that I love you,

[student name]

Please don't come if you are acquainted with me, I apologize, but just trust me.

The letter was no doubt concerning to the campus, partly due to the ominous- sounding last line. Upon a lengthy assessment and review, it was determined that the student in question did not pose a threat, and the line was explained as an attempt for him to meet new people. In the end, the student opted for a medical leave, partially due to the outrage and fear expressed by students on campus over the perceived threat. Of note, this threat occurred three weeks after the shooting in Tucson, Arizona, by another college student (Appendix B: 67), which created an atmosphere of fear and worry on campus that drove an intense reaction from students, parents, faculty and staff. Chapter 12 provides a more detailed summary on how best to respond to these public incidents involving written and social media posts by students and how to manage the concern expressed by the campus community, parents and general public.

An example in the K-12 setting occurred when a l+-year-old high-school student wrote the following poem and left it on the homeroom class local drive at school (accessible by other students in the class and the teacher): [1]

I want to be free I want to go home But where is home?

I want to be alone Home is a lie Home is a lie Home is dead

And who says it ever existed in the first place I don't fit in anywhere How can I fit in here How can I be happy

I'm so busy trying to make them feel happy



Whatever the fuck they want to be called now I just want them to be happy I want them to stop hurting I want them to just leave me alone But I want them to be happy I want them to be happy

But how can I do that without “neglecting mv feelings”

How can I do anything How do I function How do I even stav here


How do I stav awav from the tilings that hurt so good but feel so bad







Someone help me Please

Even now, thev’re nowhere to be seen I don’t care anymore Why should I?

Not like thev like me anvwav


I don't know what it was about them They made me feel .. .tilings.

(Van Brunt & Solomon, 2019)

A carious classmate was looking to see what students had written that day and then brought it to the teacher. The teacher immediately asked the student not to share this with other students, took the poem off the local drive and notified the CARE team counselor. This particular campus has invested heavily in suicide- prevention training and students are very sensitive to their part in managing community impact. This did not stop the student from sharing what she read with a mutual friend of hers and the author, but it went no further than that.

The counselor notified the chair' of their CARE team, the assistant principal and the student was asked to come down to the “office.’’This was to avoid haring the student getting pulled h orn their next class to see the “counselor.’’The parents were immediately contacted, and the poem was shared. The parents provided context that the student is an artist who writes songs about serious feelings—loss of loved ones, bad relationships, suicide, etc.—but that the student is not at risk for suicide and, in fact, sees a therapist to help them understand their deep sense of empathy. A meeting with the parents, the student and the counselor was held that afternoon and the matter was resolved. A student who, at first glance, would score verv high on the risk scale was given context, the context was confirmed and then the matter was reassessed and closed. Tire student agreed to keep their “works in progress” off the shared drive and to use other channels to share and get feedback.

There was follow-up by the team with the teacher, who was understandably very concerned. The parents and the student also asked, and were given permission, to reach out to the teacher as well. The student also asked if they could reach out to the student who initially reported finding the document to make sure they were OK. This was initially declined, but later, after speaking with that student and her parents, the two did have a meeting with the counselor present, and the reporting student was relieved (and also interested in how they get the ideas for their songs).The rumor mill at school did spread a little from the mutual friend who was not alarmed at all (knowing some of the other works of his friend), but thought it was an overreaction. Tire team monitored it with the cooperation of the reporting student, the author and the homeroom teacher. No other incidents arose. This level of comprehensive monitoring, prevention education and a fair amount of information-sharing helped mitigate what could have been a major campus disruption that could have been damaging to the students.

Moving Forward

The next chapter takes a deeper look the spectrum of interventions available to a BIT/CARE team when working with students. From applying the conduct process to conducting a welfare check on an at-risk student, this chapter will offer practical and clear guidance on how to create interventions across a multidisciplinary team.


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Fitch, P., & Van Brunt, B. (2016). Guide to leadership and management in higher education. New York: Routledge.

Haiken, M. (2013). Suicide rate among vets and active duty military jumps—now 22 a day. Retrieved on December 26, 2019 from 2013/ 02 /05 / 22-the-number-of-veterans-who-now-commit-suicide-every-day/ #6073ce62e978

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National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC). (2019). Protecting America’s Schools:A United States secret service analysis of targeted school violence. Washington, DC: United States Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security.

O’Matz, M. (2019). Is a threat real? Most Broward schools can't produce paperwork to document their reviews. Retrieved on December 29, 2019 from broward/fl-ne-broward-threat-assessment-audit-20190318-story.html

O’Toole, M. E. (2000). The school shooter: A threat assessment perspective. Quantico, VA: National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Rath,T. (2007). Strengths 2.0.. New York: Gallup Press.

Rath,T., & Conchie, B. (2009). Strengths based leadership. New York: Gallup Press.

Scalora, M., Simons, A., & Vanslv, S. (2010, February). Campus s:Assessing and managing threats (FBI Law Erforcement Bulletin). Washington, DC.: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Schiemann, M. & Van Brunt, B. (2018). Summary and analysis of 2018 NaBITA survey data. Berwyn, PA: National Behavioral Intervention Team Association.

Van Brunt, B. & Murphy, A. (2018). A staffguide to addressing disruptive and dangerous behavior on campus.

Wallis, D. (2012). Coming home from war to hit the books. NewYorkTimes. Retrieved on December 26, 2019 from /education/soldiers-come-home-to- hit-the-books.html

  • [1] want to die I don't care how or whereI just need to leave tills worldThis life I don't deserve the tilings I have or the things I get I don't deserve to be happy I want to feel the blood trickle down I want to smile as I see the world disappear h orn view I want to kill myself There are multiple ways I could do it Overdose Cuts Stabbing Gunshots Silence I want to fall softly to the floor
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