Researchers in Germany recently discovered that frequent viewers of pornography often suffer memory loss, lack of focus and a tendency to switch topics abruptly did you hear the story about the fifth grader who was suspended for stopping a fellow classmate from hurting himself?
Yup, we have yet another "Asinine School Administration Negligently Enforces Zero Tolerance Policy Because the Administration is Asinine" debacle. So, sit back and marvel at the tale of Adrionna Harris, a Virginia Beach middle-school student who confiscated a razor blade from a boy who was using it to cut himself, threw it in the garbage and immediately reported it to school officials who applauded her swift actions and—oh, wait. Nope. I read that wrong. They accused her of violating the school's zero-tolerance policy on weapons possession and damned her to a 10-day suspension with intent to expel!
OK, sure, she technically "possessed" the razor for a few seconds. And zero-tolerance advocates argue that if they make exceptions, then it defeats the purpose of zero tolerance, which is—meh—true. But here's the thing most ZT advocates don't know: There is no such thing as "zero tolerance." It is a meaningless phrase.
A zero-tolerance policy basically says that a certain issue is so problematic that we can't trust the boots on the ground to make decisions case-by-case—which is to say we don't trust them to think.
I understand the clamor for zero tolerance. The truth is, sometimes, when certain people on the ground try to think, really atrocious shit can go down. For instance, we don't want to find out that the kid who hacked up his classmates with a sawed off machete was a repeat offender who was given a second chance by some bleeding-heart guidance counselor who caught the kid with a sawed-off machete in his backpack.
But there are just as many dimwits on the other end of the spectrum, low-level managers who go overboard on discipline—such as the school officials in the razor-blade incident. I mean, you really have to take a moment to truly appreciate how stupid it was to suspend that poor girl.
Just pretend you're Principal Headenass, sitting in your office twiddling your thumbs, when in comes young Adrionna Harris, who tells you a harrowing story of a young boy who was cutting himself in the library, and how she peacefully disarmed him and immediately reported the incident.
Yet, as you're listening to this story, it somehow doesn't occur to you that, of her three options—let the boy cut himself, intervene and lie about it or intervene and report it—she chose the most righteous one! And you reward her righteous actions by suspending her ass into oblivion and blaming it on zero tolerance. Christ, man, didn't the Nazis teach you anything about the folly of blindly following orders?
But this is the point of zero tolerance, right? People can't be trusted to make decisions—to think—about these situations and act accordingly, so we take the thinking out of it. Only problem is, no matter what we do—zero tolerance or not—thinking still has to happen.
According to the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) website, the Board of Education has "adopted a Zero Tolerance Policy on weapons, violent acts and repeated fighting."
See? Now, this is why I say zero tolerance has no meaning. After all, what constitutes an act of violence? Does a wedgie qualify? A noogie? What about football? And what is a weapon? Pencils are shivs. Belts are whips. Shoestring = garrote. And an entire nerd can be used as a battering ram to bash another nerd.
Zero tolerance is just an arbitrarily drawn line along which the powers that be decide what will be tolerated, like the San Diego Unified School District ZT policy on "repeated fighting."
I hate to break to you, SDUSD, but zero tolerance for repeated acts of fighting is simply tolerance for the first fight.
Then there's the school district's zero-tolerance policy on drugs: "For possession or use of a controlled / prohibited substance," the website explains, "expulsion will be recommended on the third offense."
So, let me get this straight: The San Diego Unified School District is boasting a zero-tolerance policy on the third offense of illegal narcotics possession? Well, that's sure to send a bolt of fear across the student body.
"That is the next to the next to the last straw young man! The next, next time I catch you smoking dope in the bathroom is going to be the almost last time!"
It seems as though the San Diego Unified School District is just slapping the phrase "zero tolerance" onto their literature to convince the terminally fearful, overbearing, "My kid is an honor student" bumper sticklers into thinking that it's cracking down on discipline.
Whatever. They can throw around the words "zero tolerance" all they like, but they're still more tolerant than the averagely tolerant high school I went to. The only difference is that zero-tolerance policies take disciplinary decisions away from the teachers in the trenches and put them into the hands of bureaucrats in bubbles.
All things being equal, it's just best to leave the thinking to the crew on the ground. They may not always make the best choices, but they almost always have the best information.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Edwin Decker blogs at www.edwindecker.com. Follow him on Twitter @edwindecker or find him on Facebook.
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