Saturday, April 7, 2007

Zero Tolerance Idiocy

The other day at work, a coworker about my age and I were talking about our respective high school years; about how glad we were to graduate. He said that graduating was like getting out of jail and I agreed, saying it was like being liberated from a POW camp.

But then I noted seriously that things were really a lot easier when we went to school, before the advent of "zero tolerance" policies. At least in our day, teachers and administrators had discretion in setting and enforcing school rules and the punishments usually bore some appropriate relation to the offense.

Blockheaded zero tolerance policies, on the other hand, hamstring school officials and the mandatory rigid application of such rules often result in either absurd, or more often, unfortunate results. Students today are ending up with juvenile records for minor infractions that would have been handled on a case by case business during my school years with a note home, in-school detention, and the like.

Some examples of zero tolerance idiocy include:

Kids have been kicked out of school for possession of Midol, Tylenol, Alka Seltzer, cough drops and Scope mouthwash - contraband that violates zero-tolerance, anti-drug policies. Students have been expelled for Halloween costumes that included paper swords and fake spiked knuckles, as well as for possessing rubber bands, slingshots, water pistols and toy guns - all violations of anti-weapons policies.

An 11-year-old died of asthma because his school's zero tolerance policy prevented him from carrying an inhaler. (The New York Times, November 19, 2002.)

Shanon Coslet , a 10-year-old at Twin Peaks Charter Academy in Longmont, Colo., was expelled because her mother had put a small knife in her lunchbox to cut an apple. When Shanon realized the knife might violate the school's zero-tolerance policy, she turned it in to a teacher, who told her she had done the right thing. The child was expelled.

A six year old little boy was charged with "sexual harassment" for kissing one of his female classmates on the cheek.

Has the world gone crazy? Treating good kids who commit minor rules infractions in the same way one would handle a hardcore juvenile criminal cannot accomplish anything positive, either for the student or for the school. School officials should once again be free to set and enforce common-sense rules, using discretion on a case by case basis. The zero tolerance philosophy should be abandoned as a failed, unworkable approach to discipline.


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