Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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Why ‘zero tolerance’ doesn’t work

Last updated: 23 Mar 2020


In this blog Dr Jenny Lloyd draws upon her research with students and staff in schools to explain why she thinks ‘zero tolerance’ approaches to sexual harassment and violence in schools don’t work


I’m going to say something that might be unpopular: ‘zero tolerance’ approaches to sexual violence don’t work. But the opposite of ‘zero tolerance’ isn’t tolerance – it’s proportionality. We need proportional, contextual and practical approaches to sexual harm in schools.

Over the last few years there has been growing attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools (GirlGuiding, 2017; BBC, 2015). The #MeToo movement has certainly helped raise the profile of, and evidence the need for, society to tackle sexual violence for both adults and children globally. Following this, it certainly makes sense that those who are listening to the voices of survivors, and want to improve the lives of young people, would suggest a ‘zero tolerance’ approach. Indeed, following the Women and Equalities Committee Report into sexual harassment and violence in schools the Teacher’s Union NASUWT called for the government to demand a ‘zero tolerance approach’.

For those that champion this approach ‘zero tolerance’ means fighting for a society that no longer accepts sexual harm as just ‘boys being boys’, or the fault of victims. I agree with all this. But in practice when schools use ‘zero tolerance’ they often mean punitive, sanctions-based responses to (known) instigators of sexual harm.

My research in schools over the last three years has highlighted that often ‘zero tolerance’ approaches don’t work. That is not to say that we should accept sexual harm. But while ‘zero tolerance’ may sound appealing, in practice, sexual violence and its causes are complex, and can’t be tackled by a two-word policy.

What I have heard from speaking with students and teachers across the UK and internationally, is that when put into practice, ‘zero tolerance’ often fails to protect students.

‘Zero tolerance’ in practice

Firstly, while well intentioned, what I have seen is that ‘zero tolerance’ is interpreted to mean that any form of sexual harm may receive a sanctions based response – for example an exclusion. While those working in the field of harmful sexual behaviour highlight the need to understand sexual behaviours as falling on a continuum (Hackett, 2019), ‘zero tolerance’ can have the unintended consequence of treating all forms of sexual harm in the same way. This may provide clarity and simplify the decision-making process for staff but can also reduce their ability to use their own skills, understanding and judgement to the differing circumstances of harm.

Strictly punitive responses often individualise the issue, whereby sexual harm, such as non-consensual image sharing, can be seen to be the failure of individual students as opposed to symptomatic of wider harmful gendered cultures within schools. Furthermore, as Stein (2007) highlights, these approaches do little to deter offenders, are often punitive and “disproportionately affect students of colour”.

Secondly, ‘zero tolerance’ approaches can fail to recognise the needs and vulnerabilities of children that instigate the harm of others. Treating sexual harm as a purely behavioural issue, rather than one of child protection, can reduce the opportunity to protect children or learn about the contexts in which this is occurring. Or in the words of one young person I interviewed:

“If they exclude them they’re gonna get angrier at the girl. They should exclude him but like offer him help in a way, because when they come back they don’t get anything and they just do it to another girl.”

When we know that young people that instigate peer-on-peer abuse are often victims themselves, sanctions that exclude the student can reduce the opportunity for reparation or intervention. They may also make the young person more vulnerable and fail to prevent future harm.

At the most extreme, from working with international schools, I have seen the disastrous consequences of ‘zero tolerance’. In a number of schools students who have committed serious sexual offences have been permanently excluded. In some cases, when schools are situated in countries without rigid police or child protection agencies, schools have made the decision not to inform anyone resulting in students going without safety plans or indeed any evidence of the risks they may pose to other students.

Finally, when students are aware that schools take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach the burden of decision making falls upon victims and not staff. Young people have told us time and time again that if they or a friend experiences sexual harm at school they wouldn’t tell anyone. The reasons for this are numerous. But for young people in schools employing a ‘zero tolerance’ approach they’ve discussed how knowing the outcome – exclusions – stops them speaking out:

“the girl has to live with the fact that they’ve done that [told the school] and everyone knows that they’ve done that.”

In one school the interventions offered, which were almost exclusively sanctions based, appeared to do little to deter behaviour but resulting in victims being punished:

“It’s about the way the school go about it, cos I feel like it’s just about punishment and that’s why it sort of scares you [to tell] because he’ll get punished.

Like the boy get punished by the school but the girl gets punished even worse by the students.”

If schools are going to sanction those that harm others – they need to be attentive to the wider societal impact of speaking out. They need to monitor for retaliation and open up discussions to change often pervasive cultures which normalise the abuse victims receive due to speaking out.

So what can schools do?

Firstly, it is of course important that schools are clear to staff and students that sexual violence and harm is not acceptable. Schools should be clear on their approach and have a robust policy that includes responses to peer-on-peer abuse (an example policy can be found here). This should support staff and students but not be so restrictive as to remove the opportunity to work with students and think critically about what would work best.

Secondly, staff need to understand where the behaviour is coming from. What are the needs of victims and those displaying these behaviours? Is this related to individuals or symptomatic of a wider school culture and peer relations? Make sure responses are proportionate. You will need different responses to single instances to inappropriate behaviours as those that are abusive. But all harm should be recorded so that you can track trends and prevent harm developing.

Finally, we need to open up conversations about students experiences, and listen to their needs. Speak to your students about the issues, what they think about how the school responds, and what they would like to happen. We have a free toolkit (available here) that can help you to work with students to develop school responses to sexual violence.

Ultimately, what I have seen is that unfortunately many schools – including those that have a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach – often do tolerate sexual harm. In many cases it is only when victims speak out in the most serious of cases that schools respond. But by listening to students and developing proportionate responses that work in practice we can develop policies that protect students and staff creating safer schools for everyone.

You can contact Jenny at jenny.lloyd@beds.ac.uk

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