Sunday, June 17, 2007

Finally: Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

For years I’ve been asking the rhetorical question, “When are we going to start practicing zero tolerance for Zero Tolerance?”

I say rhetorical because I thought I knew the answer: "Never." I had become so cynical, you see, so pessimistic and bereft of hope that I truly doubted we would ever see a return to sanity in our nation's schools.

Zero Tolerance madness is too far gone, I thought. It is like a fire raging out of control. The opportunity to put it out, when it was just a cigarette butt smoldering on the forest floor, is long since past. Now it is consuming the entire forest and no help is on the way.

That was yesterday. Today I am happy to report that help is on the way. The mood has changed in this country. Tolerance for Zero Tolerance is at an all-time low, and sinking. Action is finally being taken.

But, before I describe this positive development, I should first briefly review the history of Zero Tolerance and what it has wrought ...

Zero Tolerance policies were first instituted in our nation's schools some ten years ago, the idea being that it would bring an end to drug abuse and violence in schools. Of course, there were already rules against dangerous drugs and weapons in schools. But, it was argued, they weren’t being adequately enforced. Therefore, what was needed was a new rule to ensure that the old rules should always be enforced, with no exceptions. Thus was born Zero Tolerance.

It was a good idea, a fine idea, a noble idea, in theory--but oh, what a horrible thing it turned out to be in practice. It was the worst thing that could have been done. What we discovered was that putting a Zero Tolerance policy into the hand of the average school official was like putting a gun into the hand of a raving lunatic. Whatever inhibitions that might have once kept a high school principal, or middle-school vice-principal, or fifth-grade teacher, or kindergarten teacher's inner despot at bay were now gone, utterly gone, sending these otherwise sane individuals on a power-drunk rampage, a rights-trampling spree that was awful to see.

It was mass hysteria, a witch hunt of epic proportions, a psychotic breakdown that spread like a contagion throughout the nation's school systems. In their sick hallucinations, the Zero Tolerance zealots saw everything as dangerous: switchblades were the same as nail clippers, Bowie knives the same as butter knives, squirt guns no better than 57 magnums, a drawing of an M16 as bad as the real thing, aspirin a doorway drug to marijuana, crystal meth, crack, heroin, all of them—it was all the same to the zealots. Anything at any time might violate Zero Tolerance.

The madness spread quickly, so quickly we could not believe our eyes. Soon it became routine to read such news stories as these:

At a fifth-grade graduation ceremony in California, students who adorned their mortarboards with toy soldiers to show support for the troops were forced to cut off their miniature weapons ...

In Utah, a boy was suspended from school after giving his cousin a cold pill that had been prescribed to both students ...

In Rhode Island, a kindergartner was suspended for bringing a plastic knife to class so he could cut cookies ...

And the madness raged on. It raged on, and it got worse, much worse. Soon, the zealots were looking for other things to practice Zero Tolerance on. Keeping schools safe from squirt guns and plastic sporks and pictures of aspirin bottles didn't get them high any more. They needed something else to feed their addiction to Zero Tolerance, they needed another target, and they found it.

Sexual harassment was added to the list. Like narcotics and weapons in schools, sexual harassment had always been against the rules. It had always been a disciplinary matter if a teenage boy, say, pestered a girl with unwelcome attentions or obscenities, or groped her. But the Zero Tolerance zealots wanted more. They wanted to widen the definition of the crime to include ten-year-olds who indulged in name-calling, and kindergartners who hugged each other, or hugged their teachers. It is unbelievable, but it is true. These things, too, were classified as sexual harassment and punished.

And did this satisfy the zealots? No, nothing ever satisfies them for long. They needed something else to feed their addiction to Zero Tolerance, and what they settled on next was harsher punishments for students. Where a reprimand had once been sufficient, now only an expulsion would do, and matters that had once been handled by the principal were now passed on to the juvenile authorities. A great many students, then, began to be sent to jail for somewhat-less-than criminal infractions, and there spend time with real juvenile delinquents, and be beaten and raped, and grow bitter and sick and twisted inside, and then leave jail with criminal records to impress prospective employers--in other words, to be groomed for lives of crime.

As I write this, the madness yet rages on. Nothing so far has been able to stop it, not the cries of an outraged public, not lawsuits from angry parents, not even a plea from the National School Boards Association itself to tone down the Zero Tolerance a little, not even a 2006 study by the American Psychological Association that showed that Zero Tolerance policies do no good, only harm. No, nothing so far has stopped the madness. But, today, at least there is hope.

Today we read that many states across the country are introducing legislation that would compel school officials to practice common sense when implementing Zero Tolerance policies. (LINK)

This is a good start. True, it is disappointing to realize that it takes a law to make grown-up educators practice common sense, a thing that most of us do on our own, but it takes what it takes, I guess. And let's hope it works, and if it works, perhaps we should next try it out on the Transportation Security Adminstration (TSA). Today, for instance, it was reported that TSA agents at O’Hare Airport in Chicago confiscated a clown’s make-up. They, too, it seems, have been infected with Zero Tolerance and need some help practicing common sense.