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College Quarterly
Spring 1994 - Volume 1 Number 3
Zero Tolerance Policies and Respectful Learning Environments
by Gail Benick

Social diversity has always been a characteristic of Canadian public schooling, but in recent years it has become one of the principal features of postsecondary education as well. Students attending Ontario postsecondary institutions today are, on virtually any demographic variable (religion, gender, social class, ethnicity, etc.) more diverse than at any time in the past.

It is an accepted goal of our society that everyone, regardless of background, should have the opportunity to achieve academically and to develop the skills necessary to participate fully in the workplace. The achievement of successful educational outcomes for all students requires removing the barriers that learners experience in the classroom.

One set of barriers facing postsecondary learners is found in the climate of the classroom. A growing body of literature on the academic success of diverse student populations emphasizes the need to develop positive classroom environments where students can learn without the harmful effects of race or gender-based assumptions. As one academic put it: “Looking only to individuals for predictors of success cannot work well enough or fast enough. In addition to whether students are prepared for learning, a serious question for researchers is whether institutions are prepared for diversity” (Smith, 1990, 56).

The Context

In order to ensure that postsecondary institutions foster learning environments in which all students have an opportunity to succeed, the Government of Ontario has adopted a policy of zero tolerance of harassment and discrimination in the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAATs). Just recently, the provincial Ministry of Education and Training issued a Framework Regarding Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination in Ontario Colleges. The framework sets out the required elements for institutional policies and procedures to achieve zero tolerance. Zero tolerance means that harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated by any college in its employment practices, educational or business dealings.

The Ministry framework states that institutional policies will cover harassment, discrimination and negative environment or climate if these activities are overt, indirect, systemic or because of association. The policies will apply to all grounds prohibited under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Impact of Zero Tolerance

It is fair to ask what impact policies of zero tolerance might have on postsecondary education in Ontario. It has been said in some quarters that the heightened awareness of harassment and discrimination will have a constricting, sanitizing effect on classroom discussion and deportment. Howard Doughty's "Viewpoint" in this journal (Winter, 1993), is a case in point:

“One wonders whether zero tolerance policies aimed at protecting individual feelings, improving self-esteem and creating positive environments for learning do not carry the stale odour of hypocrisy, the dank smell of prudery and the dangerous stink of repression. Do they invite a bureaucratic process permitting almost boundless complaints while rarely affording the accused even the minimal standards of due process? Do they discourage professors from countenancing controversy?”

For Doughty, it would appear that zero tolerance of harassment and discrimination is antithetical to the true spirit of education. He aligns himself with Robert Fulford when the latter wrote: “Education has always been offensive and always will be being offended is part of learning how to think.” Indeed, Doughty suggests that zero tolerance policies aimed at preventing harassment in the classroom may even risk the health of the intellect.

Such comments suffer from a failure to understand the systemic conditions which produce harassment, not only by those who are harassed, but also by those who observe it.

Understanding the Problem

Harassment is the result of complex social interactions and prejudices within society. It is an unlawful form of discrimination rooted in the abuse of power. When sexual or racial jokes, slurs or stereotypes are expressed in the classroom, they are more about power than they are about sex or race. They reflect a profound societal unwillingness to accept women and racial minority groups as having an equal place. Because of the systemic nature of harassment, the motives or intentions of those who harass are not as important as the effect of the harassment.

The impact of harassment has been widely documented. Harassment affects the health, confidence, morale and performance of those affected by it. A recent Submission to the Royal Commission on Learning titled, “Gender Equity Issues in Education,” states that sexual harassment in schools is a far greater problem for females than has been realized. Studies show that unwanted comments and conduct of a sexual nature affect the self-confidence of female students and can result in girls not wanting to attend school or speak up in classes. Various other investigations have found that a “chilly climate,” including sexual harassment and sexist use of language, exists for women students even at the graduate school level and contributes to the fact that women graduate students have higher attrition rates than men.

Similarly, racial or ethnic stereotyping and joking in postsecondary classrooms demeans individuals who are the targets of these comments and diminishes their chances for educational success. One study in the United States found that dropout rates for Whites were related to academic variables, but such rates for Blacks were related more to non-academic measures, such as social estrangement and isolation. Other U.S. data reveal that whereas 19.8% of undergraduates are racial minorities, only 10.6% of graduate students are racial minorities, a discrepancy that is greatest among African Americans.

The hostile postsecondary learning environment experienced by racial minorities is reflected in the complaints lodged at one Canadian university centre with a mandate for handling racial incidents. In a six month period, the centre received formal complaints from 75 members of the community. Specific examples included racist graffiti in library books, racial slurs, mass mailing and postering of racist materials and racist jokes. Such forms of racial harassment have the effect of creating a negative learning environment in which the opportunity for beneficial cross-cultural, interracial interaction is lost or impaired.

Adverse Impact vs. Academic Freedom

Given the adverse learning-related consequences for the victims of harassment, it is astounding that there is opposition to policies of zero tolerance of harassment and discrimination. Among the most vocal opponents are those who view zero tolerance as a threat to academic freedom. For defenders of academic freedom, a policy of zero tolerance obstructs the individual's right to freedom of expression and undermines the notion of academia as a free marketplace of ideas.

In truth, academic freedom does not conflict with policies to achieve harassment-free classrooms. As John Scott Cowan noted in his Lessons from the Fabrikant File: A Report to the Board of Governors of Concordia University (May 1994), the pillars of academic freedom rest on the right to teach without adherence to any prescribed doctrine (provided that one deals with the subject matter in the approved course outline); the right to research without reference to prescribed doctrine; the right to publish the results of one's research; and the right to speak extramurally, which includes the right to criticize the government of the day or the administration of one's institution. Academic freedom cases in Canada have been concerned with discrimination based upon ideology. In the current debate on zero tolerance, notions of academic freedom have been extended in such a way that they allow faculty to defend practices which have little connection to these academic issues. Cowan states:

“When academic freedom is extended without caveat from the content of discourse to the conduct of that discourse, it opens up the prospect of a range of 'protected' behaviours which interfere mightily with the well-being of others, as well as their ability to carry out their own work. Simply put, there is no academic freedom to harass.”

In other words, the enterprise of education does not provide the right to harm or interfere with the well-being of others. Nor should classrooms be immune from public policies which prohibit harassment.

The law now holds those who control an institution or organization responsible for creating and maintaining environments that are free of harassment and discrimination. Perhaps the Government's Framework Regarding Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination is a reminder to postsecondary institutions that they need to act with due diligence to avoid swallowing the poison pill of discrimination.

Educational Effectiveness

For educators, the strongest case against harassment and the right to offend is not a legal but an educational one. Instructional strategies that have worked for homogenous learning environments in the past may not be effective for the socially diverse classrooms of today. Or, as Jane Gaskell states in Issues for Women in Canadian Education, “What is good for males is not necessarily good for females.” What is good for one learner is not necessarily good for all learners.

The best example to illustrate this point is found in programs related to mathematics, science and technology. In 1992, female students comprised only 12% of enrollment in technology programs in the Ontario CAATs and only 18% of undergraduate enrollments at Ontario universities in the fields of engineering and applied sciences. Numerous studies suggest that female participation rates in these programs could be improved if the following changes were undertaken: (1) the classroom climate in these programs was more hospitable to women; (2) the instructional strategies used in these programs were more favoured by female students, such as cooperative problem-solving, small group discussion, dialogue and reflection; and (3) the curriculum in mathematics, science and technology programs was made more relevant and meaningful to women.

In times of fiscal restraint, it behooves educators to develop curricula and instructional strategies that maximize opportunities for successful outcomes for all learners in the classroom. Zero tolerance of harassment and the maintenance of respectful learning environments are one means of providing effective and inclusive quality education.

Systemic Remedies

Institutional policies on zero harassment and discrimination are, however, only one of many remedies that are necessary to remove systemic barriers from postsecondary education. Changing the culture of the learning environment will surely require a multi-dimensional, systemic approach. Systemic remedies involve data collection, communication, training and the development of proper complaints procedures.

The collection of student data on such background characteristics as aboriginal, racial minority and disability status is an essential component of the approach. This type of information will help postsecondary institutions track the flow of under-represented groups from enrollment into specific college programs through to completion. These data will thus provide a baseline from which to determine the parameters of the problem and to measure the effectiveness of college access and retention initiatives.

Communication and training are important remedies because misinformation about harassment exists at the student, faculty and administration levels. Posting the Ontario Human Rights Code in the classrooms would send a clear signal to students and faculty regarding appropriate and acceptable conduct. It has also been suggested that the Code or institutional harassment policies be referenced in course outlines and student handbooks. Faculty and administrators need training on anti-harassment and discrimination in order to gain a better understanding of the impact of social diversity on all aspects of postsecondary. The introduction of General Education into the college curriculum will provide increased opportunities for students to expand their awareness of gender, race and culture issues.

Proper institutional complaints procedures, which ensure due process, are vital in the adjudication of harassment cases. Many colleges now have such policies and procedures in place. The availability of professional counselling services would also be helpful in dealing with the psychological consequences of harassment and discrimination.

These harassment remedies, along with institutional policies on zero tolerance, will help create learning environments in which there is mutual respect for the dignity and rights of each individual.


Smith, Daryl G. [1990]. The Challenge of Diversity: Implications for Institutional Research, New Directions for Institutional Research, No. 65 (Spring).

Gail Benick is Professor of Community and Health Services at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario.