Monday, May 8, 2000

Week of 05/08/2000

Zero Tolerance, Zero Intelligence
- by David Matthews 2

"Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self." - Eric Hoffer

Zero Tolerance!

Boy that sounds tough, doesn’t it?

Zero Tolerance!

You’re not going to take any gruff from anyone! No way, no how, no matter what! It’s your way or the highway!

Zero Tolerance!

No gray zones. No questions. No "varying degrees" of punishment. Quick, swift, and absolute! No method of appeals. No second chances. You get one shot, and if you blow it, you’re toast!

Zero Tolerance!

People like that, don’t they? Black-and-white, zero-sum, yes-or-no, right-or-wrong. People are comforted by some absolutes in their life. To know that there are explicit rules that one must follow, and that if you break those rules, you get punished, no questions asked.

Politicians love zero tolerance. It is the "double-dog dare" of political promises. You can’t get any stricter than that. What? You want to give a criminal THREE strikes before you throw the book at him? What a mealy-mouthed liberal wimp you must be! I’m going for zero tolerance.. the first infraction will be his last! Just like kids in the playground, the first politician who declares a "zero tolerance" policy wins.

Members of law enforcement love zero tolerance because it is the closest thing to running a totalitarian police state as they can get in a relatively free society. The slightest infraction is treated the same way as the most serious of offenses. They can even use the infamous "Nuremberg Defense" of "just following orders" when the people complain. Hey, it’s not their fault.. it’s the law.

School officials love zero tolerance because it takes away all discretion. They can’t be accused of "coddling" disruptive kids or being too lenient with them. Rules are rules, and if you break them, you pay the price.

Now let’s get past the political banter and take a close look at what a "zero tolerance" policy really means.

Zero tolerance is taking a rule to its absolute limit. If you’re on the highway, it means driving no faster than the posted speed limit. Simple, right? Some communities have become "speed trap" areas because they take zero tolerance of the speed limit so much to extreme that they can quite literally pay their own budget off of the speeding tickets generated from them.

But what happens when we talk about something a little more general, like a zero tolerance policy on drugs or violence?

Well, once again that no-brainer mentality in our authority figures kick in and says "no drugs.. and no violence… period. What part don’t you understand?"

Let’s ask Shannon Eierman about that. She was an honor roll student at Atholton High School. Supposedly she was on a school ski trip in Vermont when she picked up two cans of beer she had spotted and was in the process of dumping them out when she was spotted by one of the chaperones. Thanks to that area’s "zero tolerance" policy, she was suspended for five days, forced to undergo an alcohol treatment program, and she was suspended from all extracurricular activities for half the school year. All of that for emptying two cans of beers that were not even hers to begin with!

Zero tolerance on drugs has meant students have been suspended or expelled for bringing in aspirin. It has meant students being suspended for PRETENDING to be drug users, such as pretending to snort powdered Kool-Aid.

Zero tolerance on violence has produced even more freedom-busting rules. Students who have been suspended or expelled for bringing in plastic knives to cut their own lunches. Students who have been suspended or expelled for carrying nail clippers that contain a small fingernail file.

Even the inference of violence has been rewarded with strict punishment from school officials. When nine-year old Karl Bauman -- a fan of martial arts movies -- was asked to write up a fortune cookie message, he came up with "you will die an honorable death" and suspended from school for violating that school’s new "zero tolerance" rule of threatening messages. Charles Carithers was recently suspended from Boston Latin Academy for writing a horror story as part of his English assignment that was so vivid it scared his teacher. Two other students were recently suspended from school for playing "cops and robbers" on the playground, simply because they used their fingers to simulate guns!

But zero tolerance in schools have gotten even more tyrannical than that. Because of one school’s "zero tolerance" policy on crime, twenty-eight high school students in Virginia were strip-searched in a futile effort to find $100 that was reported missing by one student. A twelve-year old boy in Rhode Island was suspended for ten days simply because his name appeared on a list of students that were present during a shoving match. The boy supposedly did not take part in the shoving match, but was simply present, and thus was declared guilty by association. Kent McNew of Surry County High School in Virginia was suspended simply because he dyed his hair blue, apparently in violation of that school’s new zero tolerance of "unusual hair color" policy. Eleven students from Field High School in Brimfield, Ohio, were suspended because they contributed to a website that had gothic themes.

Even the protests of zero tolerance policies can be considered criminal. Jennifer Boccia in Allen, Texas, was suspended from school because she wore black armbands in protest of the school’s zero tolerance policies following the Columbine massacre in 1999.

Now let’s get brutally honest here.. we all want safe schools and safe communities, but following rules to their extreme is not the answer. Granted "no weapons" or "no drugs" should mean just that, but does punishing students who play "cops and robbers" with their index fingers fall under the category of "threat"? Or the kids who were caught trying to "snort" powdered Kool Aid fall under the same category as a "drug user"? No, they weren’t; and suspending them for doing so just to teach a lesson is in itself a lesson in administrative overkill.

Zero tolerance rules may be considered a no-brainer in terms of what is covered, but when implemented as it is designed, it also eliminates the very discretion that administrators are supposed to use. Our leaders are not supposed to be mind-numbed robots, blindly implementing rules to their absolute extreme nature.

Indeed, a zero tolerance policy may also be considered a zero intelligence policy; a policy where administrators are expected to check their brains at the door. How ironic, then, that zero tolerance policies are happening in the schools, a place where young people are expected to develop and utilize the very intelligence that is lacking from their authority figures.

Ultimately, though, the fault rests not with our leaders as much as it is with the general public. We, as a society, fail to recognize that zero tolerance in its truest form is extremism. Instead, we fall prey to our own desire to feel safe and secure and blindly trust whatever policy our leaders and public officials provide as long as they can guarantee that safety and security. We must, if we truly cherish freedom -- for ourselves if not for our children -- be able to challenge that extremist mentality and keep it in check.

True leaders, be they school administrators or politicians, must be balanced and just in providing discipline. There is a profound difference between playing "cops and robbers" with pointed fingers and a student who contemplates going on a real-life killing spree with a real gun. If an administrator thinks he or she can treat those situations identically, then they have no business whatsoever being in that job.

True leadership is not based on how rigidly one can hold to a set of rules. That kind of a person is not an effective administrator, but rather a spineless bureaucrat.

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