Losing my Tolerance for "Zero Tolerance"
Weekly Weird News
When I write True each week, there are sometimes patterns to the stories. There are certain recurring themes: Darwinism (in both the "survival" and "social" senses), stupid criminals, and -- lately -- "Zero Tolerance" stories. Mostly I'm amused by the foibles of teeming humanity. But the "ZT" stories tend to make me mad, and I've been talking about them here and there in the author's note in the online edition of This is True. Here are three recent stories, to give you the idea -- the first, by far not the first in the series, is one I thought was the most outrageous possible. As you'll see below, it's nowhere near the worst.
Candy, Little Boy?
(November 1997) A Colorado Springs, Colo., school district says it did the right thing when it suspended 6-year-old Seamus Morris under the school's zero-tolerance drug policy. The drug? Lemon drops. Taylor Elementary School administrators called an ambulance after a teacher saw the boy give another student some candy, which was a brand teachers didn't recognize. "It was not something you would purchase in a grocery store," a district spokesman said. "It was from a health-food store." A spokesman for St. Claire's Lemon Tarts, however, noted that the candy is indeed sold in Colorado's largest grocery store chain. School officials were not impressed, and not only upheld the half-day suspension, but told the boy's mother that a child who brings candy to school is comparable to a teen who takes a gun to school. (UPI) ...Maybe it's time for a "zero-tolerance policy" toward idiotic school administrators.
(March 1999) David Silverstein, 13, was inspired to build a model rocket after seeing the movie "October Sky", a biography of NASA rocket scientist Homer Hickam. The boy took his rocket, made out of a potato chip canister and fueled with three match heads, to his Glendale, Ariz., school, where it was found in a search of his locker. School officials classified the toy as a "weapon" and suspended him for the rest of the year based on its "zero-tolerance" weapons policy. The police were also called, and the case is being referred to juvenile authorities. (Arizona Republic) ...How the U.S. lost its leadership in technological innovation -- one in a long series.
Bang-Bang, You're Brain-Dead
(April 1999) Administrators saw three students at the Union Colony Charter School in Greeley, Colo., playing with a water gun. According to the school's interpretation of the state's "zero tolerance" weapons law -- which mandates suspension of students who "carry, bring, use or possess a firearm or firearm facsimile at school" -- the unnamed boys have been suspended. According to standard practice in "weapons" cases, the boys must now face expulsion hearings. (UPI) ...Zero Tolerance: the politically correct term for zero thought, zero common sense.
The last one, if you can't tell by my comment, was a sort-of final straw for me. It
A lot of mail came in last week about my story on the kids suspended (and facing expulsion hearings) for playing with a "weapon" on school grounds -- a squirt gun. A few people didn't understand the story: it was not "about" water guns. It was "about" the "Zero-Tolerance" trend in schools. There are obviously problems in schools from such things as drugs and violence. But terrorizing children with inflexible rules is not the answer. School principals have always had the responsibility to make and enforce rules, and punish accordingly when those rules are broken. "Zero-Tolerance" laws take that responsibility away. They mandate certain responses that can be way out of proportion to the rule violation in question. That is what these stories are about. "This is True" has reported on a fair number of these knee-jerk reactions to non-events. Children are put into the position of being treated as felons by being suspended and/or expelled over obvious toys -- the very same thing that would happen if they brought real guns to school. What happened to the punishment fitting the "crime"? What happened to justice? What happened to the education of these children? All of that is being ignored in the name of "Zero-Tolerance". Sure, in many cases the kids broke a rule, and those rules have a purpose (e.g., to avoid tragic shootings by police who think the guns are real). Most cases call for, at most, a stern talk in the principal's office -- not suspension, expulsion, police involvement or press conferences (as many of these cases have seen). It seems to me that if we feel a need to expel kids over water guns, there must not be many real problems our society needs to deal with.
This led to a huge amount of mail, nearly all of it in total support of my comments. Not all of it, however, was supportive. That's fine: I never mind honest, thoughtful, disagreement with things I say. But one woman kept coming back again and again, arguing "What if those squirt guns were loaded with bleach? Would you let them go? What about a rapist that is impotent? Would you let him go?" Huh? And she was serious! She thought she was debating real points! And, in case she's reading this, I'll say it again: I'm not arguing that everyone should be set free; I said punishments should fit crimes. Real crimes call for real punishment. Non-crimes do not call for real punishment! Pretty simple concept? Apparently not.
Because then came the shooting spree by two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and several people who really missed the point got pretty high and mighty and yelled "See?!" at me. That led to the following editorial, in the 23 April 1999 broadcast ("18 April" issue), which includes one of the more thoughtful of those letters:
Letters are still coming in on my "Zero Tolerance" rant a few weeks ago, and frankly, I wish they'd stop: there's nothing that will change my mind. For instance:
Let me illustrate with two more stories so we don't get too bogged down in the emotions of the Colorado shooting; I have a real point to all of this.
Candy, Little Boy? II
(November 1997 -- the next story after "Candy, Little Boy?" above) A 10-year-old girl at McElwain Elementary in Thornton, Colo., was one of a group of girls who "repeatedly" asked a certain boy on the playground if he liked them. The boy complained to a teacher, so school administrators, citing the district's "zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy", decided to suspend her. After an outcry from outraged parents, the school changed its mind. A district spokeswoman said school officials "probably" overreacted, but "it's all in how you look at it." (UPI) ...Same apple, different worms.
(January, 1998) An 11-year-old British schoolboy met an Australian classmate and greeted him by saying, "G'day, sport." The boy, who was not named, was "caught" by a teacher, the school said in a statement, and while "there was no maliciousness or intent" on the boy's part, he was charged with racism for his greeting. "The boy was counseled, ...dialogue has taken place with parents," and the boy was made to write "I must not use racist remarks" 60 times, said the statement by Beverley Grammar School in Yorkshire. Tony Brett Young of the Australian High Commission was concerned it was a case of political correctness gone overboard. "'G'day sport' is part of our vernacular," he said. "It's just a traditional and friendly manner of speaking." (Reuters) ...Tony, you must remember that the self-appointed paternalistic PC snobs don't care what you think as they're more "culturally sensitive" of your nationality than you.
Now, the several issues these stories hint of are serious. Sexual harassment nearly brought down the President of the United States. It's a terribly unfair power issue, and where is there a greater power difference between the president and a lowly, unpaid White House intern? Drugs interrupt or end thousands of lives every day, not just among the people that choose to use them and can't manage to do it in reasonable moderation. People die in car crashes, drug users thrust their families into poverty, and the cost of their habits drive them to crime. And racism is surely a disgusting remnant of less enlightened eras.
But what are the stories above? The little girl wasn't sexually harassing a little boy, she was being a little girl, trying to learn how to deal with the opposite sex -- a trial-and-error process (don't you remember?) where the errors shouldn't be treated as a felony. The six-year-old boy wasn't using or selling drugs, he was sharing candy. Sharing candy! And the British lad wasn't making light of a fellow white boy's ancestry, he was trying to greet a potential friend in a way that was familiar to him.
Calling every botched encounter between genders "sexual harassment" tells true victims of that crime that their experience was similar to a schoolyard crush. Calling sharing "drug use" tells children that there's no difference between giving a friend a lemon drop and selling him heroin cut with rat poison. And calling the use of vernacular "racism" demeans people that suffer from horrible crimes: the denial of their ability to live and make a living. And it tells the people that are not involved in these issues that really, these things are just trivial things, nothing to worry about. This racism stuff is not a problem, drugs aren't a scourge, and sexual harassment is just consenting adults with unequal paychecks.
Are these the lessons legislators intend when they pass zero-tolerance laws -- and when bureaucrats enforce them? Because that's what the kids are learning. And, worse, the ZT trend gives a false sense of security. People want to know that things like school shootings can be stopped. But Colorado is at the forefront of the ZT movement! Here, ZT isn't a rule, it's the law. Did that help the students in Littleton? Of course not. Passing an inflexible law does not stop murder -- which is already quite illegal. Terrorizing a little kid for sharing candy -- and justifying it afterward when an outraged parent complains -- doesn't stop drug use. And it never will. As far as I can tell, Zero Tolerance has only negative effects. It must be stopped.
Some of the more interesting comments from readers -- and some responses to some foolish thinking -- are posted here.
Update: ZT is spreading to the "real world"! If you think ZT is only an issue of concern to schoolchildren, think again!