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Friday, March 21, 2008

No tolerance for schools' "zero tolerance"
Posted 1 week 1 day ago by Ben An honor student gets busted for possession
of a controlled substance: candy. Another student is suspended for wearing a
gun to school. On his t-shirt. Zero-tolerance strikes again.
The role of the public school, in theory, is to educate children to be good
citizens: Reading, writing and calculating are fundamental skills for
self-government. In practice, many public schools are warehouses for
children run by bureaucrats operating arbitrary and capricious rules. "Zero
tolerance" policies are the reductio ad absurdum of government schooling:
one-size-fits-all discipline that punishes innocent mistakes as harshly as
any malicious breach of law and order.

Consider the circumstances of the aforementioned stories:

a.. "Michael Sheridan was stripped of his title as class vice president,
barred from attending an honors student dinner and suspended for a day after
buying a bag of Skittles from a classmate."
a.. "One day in December, Donald Miller III wore a gun to school. As you
might imagine, it got him in trouble. But the gun wasn't loaded; indeed, it
wasn't a real gun at all. It was the image of a gun, printed on the front
and back of a T-shirt - a shirt the Penn Manor freshman wore to honor his
uncle, a soldier in the U.S. Army fighting in Iraq... His parents, Donald
and Tina Miller of Holtwood, got angry and called a lawyer. And now a
lawsuit has been filed in federal court..."
Idiotic overreaction! Mostly indefensible, too. But that should go without

Mocking "zero tolerance" isn't new, I'm well aware. James Taranto runs a
regular feature in Best of the Web Today. There is a terrific website called
Zero Intelligence, which never seems to want for tales of "zero-tolerance"
excess (at least, when the site is updated regularly).

Still, every time I read one of these stories, I get angry. The school
officials in Lancaster saw that gun on the t-shirt and instantly thought
"Columbine." The administrators in New Haven, well trained in weeding out
dangerous drugs, knew just what to do when faced with banned carbohydrates.
They probably didn't have to think once, let alone twice.

You could argue (as I once tried with Taranto) that zero tolerance policies
are the fruits of conservative reaction to an explosion of drugs and
violence in schools in the 1980s and '90s. The answer (as Taranto rightly
offered) is so what? Boneheaded policies are boneheaded policies. Get rid of
'em, already!

So what is the answer to school administrators' penchant for overreaction?
Prudence would counsel moderation, but there has been neither prudence nor
much moderation within the education establishment for a long time. So in
the spirit of more than two decades of preposterous "zero tolerance" rules,
errant, stubborn, cowardly or downright stupid principals and their flunkies
should face suspension, termination, a choice of stocks, bastinado or the
lash, followed by banishment and/or exile.

What's that? Too excessive? Too cruel? Well, the alternative would be to
actually elect sensible people to local school boards and state office and
repeal the policies. But everyone knows that's impossible. So the bastinado
it is!

1 comment:

kelley58 said...

The concept of "zero tolerance" itself is not the problem; not tolerating specific behaviors can send a strong message to students. That said, zero tolerance has taken on a whole new meaning: punish to the fullest extent of the law, always, no exceptions.

In many cases, the school officials are not the culprits. In Michigan, our laws dictate what the punishment must be for any known offense. Teachers' and administrators' hands are often tied - their options include reporting the incident knowing an unfair outcome or not reporting it with possible disciplinary action brought against them for not reporting a school "safety violation". Schools are judged on their safety "rating", I would imagine there is an unspoken "zero tolerance" for teachers & admin for not reporting infractions...

We now understand that the zero-tolerance policies are not productive, do not make schools safer, and in fact, put many innocent children at risk by keeping them out of school or putting them into an "alternative" setting for their suspension. But what is lacking in most blogs is a formative action plan for change.

In order to make a change in our school's policies, we need to determine where the policies originate - in Michigan it is with our State laws. Blaming Administrators and Board members is easy, while contacting legislators to lobby for modified laws is more difficult...more effective, yes, but also more difficult.

If we are going to see a change, we need to do more than talk; we need to spread the word of what to do: research the basis of the policy, talk to School Board members, contact legislators and give them your rational, logical reasoning for change. Contact a teachers' association to see how you can assist in furthering their mission to reform "zero tolerance". Action = change.

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