ZERO Tolerance

Posted: Nov 01, 2007 3:08 PM
ZERO Tolerance

I have a confession to make. When I was a child, I was a chronic, repeat doodler.

During dull moments at school, I admit, I not only drew soldiers shooting one another, but also tanks, bombers, fighters, and even the occasional space ship with planet destroying powers.

These days, of course, any of them would have been enough to get me kicked out of school. In our era of zero-tolerance, I would surely have spent most of elementary and middle school shuttling between suspensions and expulsions, with an occasional time out for social studies.

Just ask the 7-year-old in New Jersey who was suspended for drawing a smiling stick figure shooting another smiling stick figure with a gun. He reportedly also drew pictures of a skateboarder, a ghost, King Tut, a tree, and a Cyclops. These are still apparently not yet illegal acts of art.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, high school student Amber Dauge faces expulsion for accidentally taking a butter knife to school. She says that she ran out of the house to meet the bus while making a sandwich and when she realized she had the knife, she put it in her bookbag, and later left it in her locker at. A few weeks later, the butter knife fell out, fellow students saw it, a teacher intervened, and the over-reaction commenced. The knife was seized, Amber was suspended, and the process of expelling her from high school began.

It is not clear precisely what threat is posed by a butter knife, except to a sandwich. Even a dull pencil is a more dangerous weapon; the forks in the school cafeteria are more lethal. But once “zero tolerance” kicks in, educrats refuse to draw such fine distinctions: a butter knife becomes indistinguishable from a samurai sword.

Of course, after Columbine, educators do have legitimate reasons to be concerned about student safety, but the low-grade hysteria and hyper-bubble-wrapping of children in the name of zero-tolerance is really about something else: the refusal of adults to use their common sense.

Some years ago four kindergarten boys in New Jersey were actually suspended for playing cops and robbers -- using their fingers as guns. In Texas, a high school baseball player was busted for having an 8-inch long souvenir baseball bat on the front seat of his car, after officials decided it met the written definition of a “weapon.”

“Nature,” as H.L. Mencken once observed, “abhors a moron.” The same obviously cannot be said of school boards, who often hire them as principals.

In Indiana, an eighth-grader who realized that he had inadvertently brought a Swiss Army knife to school in his jacket pocket, turned it in to the office as soon as he arrived at school, but was suspended for 10 days anyway. The principal recommended that he be expelled, even though the student had told the truth and done the right thing. Assuming that the point of the no-weapons rule was to keep knives out of school, it had succeeded when the boy turned it in. But the message his suspension sent to other students was probably to keep any weapons hidden and as far away from administrators as possible.

This sort of bureaucratic obtuseness extends to the enforcement of drug policies. In Louisiana, the Bossier Parish School Board voted to expel high school student Amanda Stiles for a year for possessing a single tablet of Advil. The over-the-counter pain reliever was found during a search of Amanda’s purse after a teacher received a tip that Amanda had been smoking in school. No cigarettes or lighter was found, but the search nailed the Advil. The superintendent said the suspension was “consistent with the board's zero-tolerance policy.”

None of this, of course, is really about keeping children safe or even teaching them how to behave: it is about administrators protecting their backsides.

Instead of encouraging children to exercise sound judgment, “zero tolerance” shows adults at their most arbitrary and stupid, especially when it punishes students for doing the right thing.

This is ironic, since these are the folks who are supposed to teach our children “critical thinking skills.” (PS: I also drew pictures of dinosaurs eating people.)