Zero Tolerance

First and foremost, I’m sending a huge shout-out to the many school children across the nation who walked out from their schools this morning in protest of lax gun control laws that place the students in what my husband calls “perpetual code yellow” (perpetual potential lockdown).  Deep, heartfelt thanks go to this big, brave group and to the teachers, staff, and administrators who joined them.  (*If you have access, check out Rockbridge County High School Latin Teacher Patrick Bradley’s account of the walkout at his school.)  *Here is the Gender Shrapnel post on guns from a few weeks ago.

Next, I’d like to address the use of the term “zero tolerance,” especially in the college/university environment, as it pertains to hazing and other forms of sexual and racial discrimination and harassment.  This issue comes up in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace book, but I have not written much about it here in the blog.

When institutions cite “zero tolerance policies,” they are referring to the requirement that they investigate reported cases of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, along with sexual violence.  They are not saying that they do not tolerate hazing and other forms of harassment.  In fact, such high-profile and troubled institutions as Pennsylvania State University and Ohio State University and dozens of others  tout zero-tolerance policies, while news reports show them to have tolerated for decades lethal hazing and other forms of sexual abuse and assault.  They also are not saying that, when they investigate these cases, they often find for the complainant. (*Here are some examples of zero-tolerance policies at: George Mason; Penn State (specifically addressing bullying); University of California-Riverside; University of Oregon; University of Southern Maine; news report on zero-tolerance policy at the University of Virginia.)

The National Education Association has published this interesting 2011 article on alternatives to zero tolerance policies.  The focus in the article is more on all-or-nothing punishments than on misleading rhetoric, but the content can help to guide conversations on the whole concept of zero tolerance.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definitely considers zero-tolerance policies when it is presented with reports of employment violations.  Just insert “zero tolerance” as the search item on this site, and you’ll see what I mean.

The rhetoric is incredibly misleading, for it implies that school officials have eradicated violence based in structural hierarchies, when exactly the opposite is true.  I would argue that using the “zero tolerance” term in an environment where hazing runs deep and dangerous (e.g. fraternities, athletics teams, military organizations) contributes profoundly to the “blind-eye phenomenon” I write about in the Gender Shrapnel book.  It covers up an all-too-often whispered reality of lords demanding servitude through violence—something clearly allowed, if not directly fomented, by our university cultures.

I hear it in this way: Hazing will simply not be tolerated in our midst—except for when we tolerate it every day—and I mean it!  Those who created the zero-tolerance policy meant well, didn’t they?  They must have been people who believed that you could say, “Fiat lux!” and there would be light.  Oh, how easy it is to zip out the “zero tolerance” lingo.  If you just declare “zero tolerance” of an odious practice, then clearly that odious practice has ceased to exist. We have zero tolerance, and therefore nowhere on our campus do we tolerate hazing or discrimination based on gender or race.  Just like that!  That’s faster than you get a milkshake in the Cook Out line.

I remember that a long, long time ago, in my first year at the university where I teach, I saw an older faculty member sit in the back, mumble epithets, and occasionally punch the carpeted walls of the meeting room.  He was really frustrated, and also vaguely amused by younger faculty members’ naïve belief that discussion could be had and change could be wrought.  I appreciated his frank demonstrations of frustration and futility, but also thought that of course we could create change, even as I listened to the story of a fraternity whose members were suspended for using electric cattle prods on their newest “brothers.” I remember being horrified at this news, naively believing that kind of practice could never be a part of a brotherhood ritual, and stating openly that our honor system should be under question if we knowingly allowed these activities to take place for at least eight straight weeks, every year.  As we left that spring faculty meeting, at least five older faculty members gently warned me that I’d better be careful if I wanted to earn tenure.  I risked it and kept talking.  As you can see, I still risk it and keep talking.  My position at the university is less precarious than back then, but my big mouth, combined with crumbling faculty governance, still introduces an element of vulnerability.

About five years after I arrived at the university, I sat as an elected member on my university’s board of appeals, which hears cases of student discipline that have been decided upon by the student governing bodies and have been appealed.  I listened to one particular hazing case for many hours, more than I would have spent on even the lengthiest of stints of local jury duty.  As I recall, the fraternity in question had sophomores and juniors who were alleged to have tied new members’ hands behind their backs, forced copious amounts of alcohol down their throats, and left them to lie in each other’s vomit.  I believe that other cases of corporal abuse accompanied these accounts, although I do not recall that element as clearly now.  I watched as well-known lawyers and alumni of the particular fraternity arrived to testify, to indulge the “boys’” actions, and to seek the lowest possible penalty for something that surely we all understand as just a tradition.  I watched as the fraternity was suspended, not expelled, from campus.  I watched that fraternity return to campus and resume its rituals.  In fact, it is the very same fraternity that was just suspended, not expelled, from our campus for reports of the very same kind of hazing.

About a year ago, I wrote this “Loving People” post in response to the report that a Penn State University student had died, had been left to die, as his “brothers” covered up their felonious actions and the university again had to confront its indulgence of violent, supposedly underground practices, even as they continued to invoke zero-tolerance policies.

At our faculty meeting this week, I foolishly jumped back into the belly of the beast I’ve avoided for several years.  The beast is the fraternity system, whose hazing practices range from mild to lethal and whose academic focus for new pledges ranges from zero on the Fahrenheit scale to zero on the Kelvin scale.  Two years ago, I taught intermediate-level courses in the semester in which fraternities conducted “new member education.”  Approximately 72% of the students in these classes, already dominated by male students, were men receiving fraternity “new member education.”  Their performance in the class went from mediocre to piss-poor to mostly nil.  Their sense of privilege went from high to higher-than-a-kite to sky-high.  I’m too old to think this is cute, or good, or simply a rite of passage.  Mostly it seems like a huge waste of time, money, and the opportunity to learn to live at times outside of oneself.  I am definitely old enough to understand that these so-called “boys will be boys,” “brotherly” behaviors can be deadly.

How are we doing as we continue to say that no hazing is tolerated?  Have we sent the message that boys won’t be boys, that hazing is not tolerated, that our young men aren’t learning to be lords of the manor?  Recent and past events certainly tell us otherwise.

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