The scuffle was over almost as quickly as it started. The boys were playing a team game, and, as is common with nine-year-old boys, there was a disagreement about the rules. An argument quickly ensued, and without warning Josh punched Carlton — a boy from the other team. In the blink of an eye, both boys were on the ground engaged in a tussle.
The counselors immediately intervened and moved both boys to the cool shade of separate trees. While no injuries were visible, the camp nurse was summoned to check on each boy, who, proclaiming them both "physically fine," handed each a Popsicle for the purposes of cooling off and calming down.
After some calm conversation, the boys' counselors began implementing the camp's processes for restoring the boys back into their group — from acknowledgments and apologies to practicing some "what if" scenarios in which the boys talked about making choices and what they might do differently in the future. On their own initiative the boys made some new rules for themselves — like agreeing to take a time-out if anyone didn't understand the rules of a game in the future. And wanting to be responsible without an adult having to intervene, they established a "buddy watch" where each would help keep things fair and have a buddy step in "just in case someone seemed to be getting out of control."
Emerging wiser and proud of their justice-restoring accomplishments, the group of young boys moved on with their day, quickly forgetting the incident, distracted by and immersed in their next fun camp adventure.
For us, it had been nothing more than a short-lived, garden-variety playground scuffle between young boys at camp. From our perspective, the boys not only practiced valuable conflict resolution skills, but also demonstrated self-directed learning and taking responsibility for their actions — a testament to the growth and learning that can be accomplished in the small group environment of camp. At the end of the day, the scuffle was quickly resolved, with no one hurt, and we all moved on.
However, one week later I was on the phone being yelled at by the irate mother of one of the boys who had been involved.
Clearly upset, she shared that her son, a beacon of rational, controlled behavior, of course, "would never engage in that type of behavior," that the other little boy "didn't deserve camp," and in an angry, demanding tone asked, "Why didn't you enforce your zero-tolerance policy and send that other boy home?"
Here we go again.
So here are the questions keeping me awake at night: How did we get to a point where kicking a child out of a program, school, or camp is perceived as the only acceptable option? And when did the choice to not send a child home translate automatically to toleration of improper behavior?
How Did We Get Here?
Zero-tolerance policies originated in the U.S. public school systems in 1994, after federal legislation required states to expel any student who brought a firearm to a public school for one year, or lose all federal funding (FairfaxZeroToleranceReform.org, 2015). When acting on this requirement, this federal policy was often expanded by school systems to include preventing drug abuse, in addition to violence, in public schools.
"Zero tolerance" initially was defined as consistently enforced suspension and expulsion policies in response to weapons, drugs, and violent acts in the school setting. Over time, however, zero tolerance has come to refer to policies that mandate predetermined, typically harsh consequences or punishments (typically suspension and expulsion) for a wide degree of rule violations.
Despite that these policies were never intended to be a catch-all for all types of behaviors, fast forward 20 years and zero-tolerance policies have evolved and are now being used in reference to an ever-widening category of transgressions. And the end is typically the same; the child is suspended or expelled.
As schools often set the direction that is followed by other organizations serving school-aged youth, there is often a perception that these zero-tolerance policies are "best practices." Additionally, there can be pressure from the public or parents to create such policies. Zero-tolerance policies have become so prevalent that parents automatically assume they are in place in all schools and programs serving youth. Parents assume there is a universal policy to which all organized youth-serving programs adhere.
However, a myriad of research indicates that zero-tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop-outs and discriminatory application of school discipline practices. Adding to the challenge, much like the language of bullying where parents often don't discern the difference between actual bullying or typical conflict between kids, the universal use of zero-tolerance language by parents is often without an understanding of the actual policy (or if there is a policy), its implementation, or the impact these types of policies have on the lives of the youth who are subjected to them (American Psychological Association, 2008; Kang-Brown, Trone, Fratello, & Daftary-Kapur, 2013; Nash-Wood, 2011; NASP, 2001; Skiba, 2000, 2011; Teske, 2011; U.S. Department of Education, 2015).
Zero Tolerance Applied
The zero-tolerance policy assumption is that inflexibility is a deterrent because, no matter how or why the rule was broken, the fact that it was broken is the basis for the imposition of the penalty. Period.
That inflexibility applied in the camp setting might translate to a policy wherein every camper who comes into physical contact with another camper in any manner would be expelled from camp. Staying true to the policy would mean that every time the rule is broken the camp would be obligated to send that (those) camper(s) home. This would include automatically sending home every child who pinched, pushed, or punched another camper — as well as every one of them who hugged another camper or gave another camper a high-five. If the policy is no physical contact, then regardless of the circumstances, there would no exceptions.
"That's crazy," you say? Welcome to the club.
One of the (many) fundamentally inherent problems with the blind application of universal zero-tolerance policies is that kids are not rational, self-regulating miniadults. In my initial example, as is the typical nature of kids, there is an almost constant state of physical interaction and movement. And specifically in a summer camp — where just about everybody becomes your buddy — there is often a lot of playful touching, hugging, poking, wrest ling, high-f iving, pushing, and rough-housing.
While this all (ideally) occurs under the watchful eye of camp staff to maintain emotionally and physically safe interactions, it is common for kids in a group to need guidance, with adult staff reeling them back in and helping them sort things out if they get overstimulated.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of zerotolerance language has left us to contend with the unrealistic expectations of parents who seem to forget that their kids are indeed still kids when they turn them over to an organized program, camp, or school. As if the son taunting his sister for the entire two-hour car ride to camp will magically transform and become a rational, thoughtful, young gentleman who is fully in control of his emotions and behavior once he passes through the camp gates.
Somehow we forgot that we know better and have lost what zero-tolerance policies were actually intended for. Bottom line: We need to stop treating every transgression as if the child involved is a gun-toting thug or drug dealer!
If kids are getting kicked out of school and other programs every time they make a mistake, where can they learn how to interact appropriately with others? And if the adults in these scenarios are always responding with a defensive expulsion, from whom will kids learn positive social behaviors? Where are they going to learn to make friends? How do they learn to manage their emotions or resolve conflict if they have no place to practice and master these skills?
The Answer Is Camp
Camps may very well be some of the last safe places where kids can learn to interact and resolve conf lict. As youth development professionals, we recognize that kids don't always like each other, don't always agree, and don't always comply. We have the capacity to take these freshly minted humans in their various stages of development and help them learn how to:
- Manage their emotions
- Get along with others in a group
- Make and keep friends
- Respond appropriately when they are angry or upset
- Accept responsibility for their actions
The good news is that we as camp professionals have a choice. While common sense and logical consequences may have gone out the window in other settings, we at camps have the option to take back tolerance, the power to think for ourselves, and the ability to impact kids in a far more positive and constructive manner by implementing proven discipline strategies that provide more effective alternatives to broad zero-tolerance policies. If a shared goal of youth development programs is to help kids grow, we have a responsibility to respond to camper behavior in a way that is fair and assists children in learning from their mistakes and making changes to their behavior. And we have a responsibility to act in a manner that teaches, leads, inspires, and empowers youth.
I am not suggesting that camps should condone dangerous or bad behavior. Most camps have some behavior policies that are absolute — such as if a child endangers himself or herself or others. Camps do need to manage risks for their programs and participants as applicable to their specific clientele. And there are times when it is appropriate for a camp to make the choice to send a child home. Camps are encouraged to implement strategies that are effective, thoughtful, and fair, and to take a balanced approach and use discretion to handle situations on a case-by-case basis.
Ideally, discipline in a camp should mirror the camp's philosophy of youth growth and development, and of building intentional community with staff being responsible for a balanced approach to meeting the needs of the victim, wrongdoer, and the camp community through processes that preserve the physical safety, emotional safety, and dignity of all. Rather than treating kids like thugs, camps can give them the opportunity to repair their mistakes and restore themselves back with the group as a whole person — including allowing kids to save face when they screw up.
Challenges to Change
With 20 years of zero-tolerance policies in the public domain, many parents automatically expect that camps have the same policies as schools; they have been imprinted with the anything-less-than-sending-achild- home-is-unacceptable response.
Parental education must be an integral part of making a change to your procedures. (Even if your camp or program doesn't have a zero-tolerance policy in place, unless you have been intentional in educating parents, many of them will automatically assume you do.)
Camps must find a way to communicate to parents that the choice not to send a child home from camp does not mean the bad behavior has been tolerated. Additionally, communication to camper/ prospective camper parents should include clearly stated and communicated discipline policies — what they are and are not and what incidents will require contact with parents.
It's also important to recognize that those who work with kids in groups often see and understand the world of kids a little differently from parents. Education in child development, along with immersion with the day-to-day workings of the child and adolescent brain, often gives insight, perspective, and a learned patience in terms of what we elect to respond to and how we respond.
However, what we perceive as "typical kid behavior" or see as "Popsicle fixable" may not automatically translate in that manner to parents. Efforts in educating parents may require explaining the reasons for your decision from a child development perspective. If their child learned something from the experience, don't assume parents will "get it" — tell them what their child gained in terms of growth and development and why this matters. This type of partnering with parents will help to foster confidence in and support for your thoughtful approach to discipline at camp.
Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts.
American Psychological Association. (2008, December). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist. Retrieved from www.apa.org/pubs/info/ reports/zero-tolerance.pdf
FairfaxZeroToleranceReform.org (2015). Zero tolerance issue history. Retrieved from www.fairfaxzerotolerancereform.org/ issuebackground/ztissuehistory.html
Kang-Brown, J., Trone, J., Fratello, J. & Daftary- Kapur, T. (2013, December). A generation later: What we've learned about zero tolerance in schools. Retrieved from www.vera.org/ sites/default/files/resources/downloads/zerotolerance- in-schools-policy-brief.pdf
Nash-Wood, M. (2011, December 4). Are schools zero-tolerance policies too harsh? USA Today. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday .com/news/nation/story/2011-12-04/zerotolerance- policy/51632100/1
National Association of School Psychologists. (2001). Zero tolerance and alternative strategies: A fact sheet for educators and policymakers. Retrieved from www.nasponline.org/resources/ factsheets/zt_fs.aspx
Skiba, R.J. (2011). A history and critique of the effectiveness of zero-tolerance discipline. Dignity in Schools. Retrieved from www.dignityinschools.org/content/ history-and-critique-effectiveness-zerotolerance- discipline
Skiba, R.J. (2000, August). Zero tolerance, zero evidence: An analysis of school disciplinary practice. Indiana Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://indiana.edu/ ~safeschl/ztze.pdf
Teske, S.C. (2011). A study of zero tolerance policies in schools: A multi-integrated systems approach to improve outcomes for adolescents. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. Retrieved from www.ncjfcj.org/ sites/default/files/Zero%20Tolerance%20 Policies%20in%20Schools%20(2).pdf
U.S. Department of Education (2015). School climate and discipline: Rethinking discipline. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/ school-discipline/index.html
Diane Tyrrell, CCD, is the director at Camp Motorsport/Chef Camp in Clover, Virginia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.