Zero Good Sense

"Zero tolerance" has morphed into a thought-control program.

By Dave Kopel, Dr. Paul Gallant, & Dr. Joanne Eisen of the Independence Institute

National Review Online, June 6, 2001 9:15 a.m. More by Kopel on zero tolerance.

On May 9, 2001, a fifth-grader was handcuffed at Oldsmar Elementary School near Tampa, and taken into custody by police. "That's normal procedure in a situation like this," said school district spokesman Ron Stone.

What crime could this youthful offender have committed to warrant such treatment? His dastardly deed, ferreted out by an alert teacher, had been to draw some pictures of weapons. And the punishment meted out, aside from the lifelong trauma that comes from being treated like a violent criminal, was suspension from school — the same punishment he would have received had he actually brought a firearm to school. Said principal David Schmitt, "the boy probably won't return for the rest of the year and probably would be moved to another school." Added Schmitt reassuringly, "The children were in no danger at all. It involved no real weapons."

Now consider the CD Violence, released last fall by the group Nothingface. One of the songs, "American Love," contains the following lyrics: "We all just want to see…you get kicked in the face…. I'm here to wait for all the killing…". In another selection, "Blue Skin," one hears the lyrics, "I got machine guns. And yes they're lots of fun. We got some bullets and we're mowin' everybody down…".

These selections, and the rest, are filled with obscenities and violence. Yet Violence is considered "creative" and "artistic" — and if you dare to criticize it, the Hollywood elite will condemn you as intolerant. But where's the concern for children who get expelled from school for much more benign art?

Many adult Americans today smugly contrast themselves with their narrow-minded, intolerant ancestors. Back in the 1890s, for example, there were many parents and teachers who forbade young people to dance, play cards, or attend the theater. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, teenage schoolgirls were warned against wearing patent leather shoes, because the shoes might reflect their underwear.

While it's easy to smirk at hyper-fearful parents and teachers who pestered children about Whist or patent leather shoes, less amusing is the realization that many of today's educators have far surpassed their ancestors in imposing absurd restrictions on young people.

Today's restrictions go by the name of "zero tolerance," and for once, this is a government program aptly named. To have "zero tolerance" is the same as to have "no tolerance," which is the same as being "intolerant" or "bigoted" — the precise opposite of "celebrating diversity" or "embracing tolerance." And just as we might expect as much from programs that revel in intolerance, "zero tolerance" is used by an increasing number of so-called "educators" to suppress the behavior of students who deviate from today's politically correct norm.

As originally conceived in the 1980s, "zero tolerance" had nothing to do with expelling children from school for thought crimes involving art projects or playground time. Rather, "zero tolerance" meant setting strict rules against bringing guns, knives, or potentially dangerous items to school, and imposing automatic and uniform discipline for violators. The inflexible nature of the system was meant to protect schools against discrimination complaints by racial-minority students who violated the rules.

"Zero tolerance," however, has morphed into a thought-control program that would have impressed Chairman Mao. In an August 2000 report, Prof. Russell Skiba, Director of Indiana University's Institute for Child Study, noted that, "School punishments greatly out of proportion to the offense arouse controversy by violating basic perceptions of fairness inherent in our system of law."

A perfect example was reported by the Associated Press on January 31, when "an 8-year-old boy was suspended from school for 3 days after pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying 'Pow, pow, pow'. The incident apparently violated the Jonesboro [Ark.] School District's 'zero tolerance' policy against weapons."

South Elementary principal Dan Sullivan said that, "The school has zero-tolerance rules because the public wants them." After Jonesboro's 1998 school shootings, said Sullivan, "People saw real threats to the safety and security of their students."

How silly must school administrators become in order to convince the public that children playing with a chicken finger are "real threats" to "safety and security"?

Declared Sullivan, punishment for a threat "depends on the tone, the demeanor, and in some manner you judge the intent. It's not the object in the hand, it's the thought in the mind. Is a plastic fork worse than a metal fork? Is a pencil a weapon?"

On March 24, the Associated Press reported that a third-grade honor student at Lenwil Elementary School in West Monroe, La., was suspended for three days because he drew a picture of a soldier holding a knife and a canteen. The picture also included a fort filled with appropriate gear, including rifles, handguns, knives, and first-aid kits. The school's principal defended the suspension because the school "can't tolerate anything that has to do with guns or knives."

In fact, the school could tolerate drawings of soldiers, Civil War battle scenes, police officers, and lots of other things that involve guns or knives. They're present in our history books and our monuments all across America, which honor those who have sacrificed their lives for the liberty we Americans now enjoy. The school simply chose to be intolerant. Punishing a third-grader for drawing a picture of soldier doesn't make anyone safer.

Willie Isby, director of Child Welfare and Attendance for the Ouachita Parish School System, called the student's picture "a violent arrangement here" — even though the picture simply depicts a standing soldier, and contains no violence.

"The punishment is not that bad in this case," Isby continued, "in light of the fact that we have been having all these killings in schools."

Isby's quote gets to the heart of modern "zero tolerance" policies, under which third-graders are turned into scapegoats and punished (even though they did nothing wrong) because the real criminals (e.g., school shooters) are beyond the power of school officials to punish.

Put another way, the schools themselves are perpetrating classic bullying behavior. Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal observes that most monkey or ape species have designated scapegoats, who get picked on when the group is under stress. De Waal explained, "The scapegoat also gives the high-ranking individuals in the group a common enemy, a unifier. By uniting against the scapegoat in moments of tension, it creates a bond."

Thus, when the high-ranking individuals in a school (administrators, psychologists, and teachers) are under stress (because of highly publicized school violence), they can unite by bullying the scapegoat — namely the children who commit thought crimes.

Late last year, a third-grade boy in Pontiac, Mich., was suspended because he brought a one-and-one-half inch "gun-shaped medallion" to school. It wasn't a real gun, or a even a toy gun, only the symbol of a gun. Punishing a child for a wearing a medallion is — like punishing a child for artwork — simply a form of thought control and bullying.

The reason that's usually given for zero-tolerance policies in schools is the reduction of aggressive behavior. But does the process of denying civil rights to children succeed in creating a safer learning environment? Does promoting administrative bullying really reduce aggression? Not according to Prof. Skiba, who concluded from a comprehensive review of the literature that there is an "almost complete lack of documentation linking zero tolerance with improved school safety …Zero Tolerance is a political response, not an educationally sound solution…. The most extensive studies suggest a negative relationship between school security measures and school safety."

Concluded Rand Institute behavioral scientist Jaana Juvonen in the March 9 issue of Salon, solutions to combat juvenile violence "may not only be ineffective but may actually backfire." Juvonen singled out "zero tolerance" policies as being the worst example.

In short, there's no reason to believe "zero tolerance" policies are any more effective than wishful thinking, just like the ubiquitous signs around our nation's schools proclaiming, "Drug-Free Zone."

One can't help but wonder if the zeal to bully scapegoats might be diminished if school administrators believed in the existence of Hell (a concept which was popular in the late 19th and mid-20th century, but one which is not taken seriously among the social classes from which today's government school administrators are drawn). If school bureaucrats could picture the Columbine murderers spending eternity (or at least a long time) in Hell, would they devote so much psychic energy to punishing children who are merely exhibiting normal development by drawing pictures of soldiers, or by wearing trench coats?

And what of the original core of "zero tolerance": weapons in school? Even here, the enforcement has gone insane. Brooklyn high school student Reginald McDonald was suspended for carrying a 12-inch metal ruler, which the school labeled a "weapon" — even though his shop class required him to have a ruler.

In Pennsylvania, a six-year-old was expelled because he carried a nail clipper in his backpack. The capriciousness of the nail-clipper expulsion is a central feature of totalitarian criminal "justice": Anyone can be punished for anything. Random punishment for innocent acts serves to create a sense of learned helplessness in the victim as well as in those who witness the punishment. Did this youngster have any more reason to believe he was committing a crime than Joseph K. did in Franz Kafka's The Trial?

Zero tolerance isn't a program to make our children safer. Instead, it's a program to enable the bullying of children by intolerant adults.  

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