September 19, 2020

Zero Tolerance Follies

Occasionally, Americans are capable of great things. D-Day. State Fair Corn dogs. Frank Sinatra. The election of Ronald Reagan. The Internet. On other occasions, Americans can really lay an egg. The election of Bill Clinton. The election of Hillary Clinton. The near election of Al Gore. The indictment of Jim Traficant. And the absurd and harmful use of zero tolerance laws to control young people’s behavior.

Zero tolerance laws are the current rage among those in a panic about the free-fall of American youth culture. There are zero tolerance laws about drugs, so that any student with a Tylenol or a vitamin is expelled from school. (No joke.) There are zero tolerance rules about weapons, so that kids with threatening key rings and plastic cutlery are expelled. (No joke.) There are zero tolerance rules about sexual harassment, so if first grade Johnny tries to kiss first grade Julie on the playground, he is expelled. (No joke) Zero tolerance rules will get you sent home for a poem about death, or punching a bully in the nose or teasing a kid with funny glasses. Good thing these laws weren’t on the books when I was dropping my pencil on the floor during the mini-skirt era.

Zero tolerance is the newest plaything of do-it-yourself social engineers of both political persuasions. It is a mindless bull in a china shop, but, gosh, we seem to love it right now. It makes for a great PTA meeting. It sounds wonderful in a speech for school board or President of the United States. It will get a room full of high school students to shut up and pay attention pronto. It is also probably the single worst piece of social policy ever implemented in schools, and about as intellectually and morally bankrupt as conservatives get these days. The zero-tolerance police know just how to solve everything: with the maximum amount of mindless, blunt force.

The school shootings of the past several years created a hysteria of “Do-Something!” among the policy-making class. School uniforms and see-through backpacks didn’t seem severe enough, so now we will send home any kid with a cough drop or a plastic spoon. We will make it simple, said these caring wonks and wonkettes: deviate one micron from normality, and you are history. Wink at your classmate or say you’d like to kick someone’s posterior, and you are headed for military school, if they want to take the risk.

Where can we begin with what is wrong with this kind of thinking? For starters, I don’t want public school teachers and principals mandated imbecility as a matter of policy. There is enough stupidity in life without requiring it. I would like teachers and administrators to use a little judgment in dealing with young people. Even some intelligence. Hey, why not even some compassion? Could we look at the kid and the situation, then do what is appropriate? Even use a bit of discipline? Or you can just throw them out. Whatever.

Do zero tolerance rules make schools safer and more hospitable for learning? Probably. Of course, if everyone who chews gum were sent to an alternative school it would be an improvement as well. Expelling the tardy on their first offense would be an improvement. Cutting off the fingers of kids who annoy everyone by drumming their pencils on the desk seems like an idea with some merit to me. And any teacher without a lesson plan- off with their heads! That guillotine could be a history project.

There is, of course, deterrence to consider. These laws intimidate likely offenders like anti-violence public service ads on MTV stop gangsters from shooting each other. (“Yo, I wuz on my way out the door to whack this punk, when I saw this stop the violence ad on MTV. It really made me think. I sold my gun and became a priest, now…”) A student thinking of sexual harassment or violence will surely think twice when the school has such strong rules. I mean, you don’t want to get in trouble. Especially if you are totally deranged, hearing voices, are a psycho paranoid and filled with rage and destruction. The opinion of the community has got to be taken into account before doing something rash that could get you in jail or on TV. Your parents might be unhappy if you were expelled. These rules must slow down the thoughtful offender. (That paragraph was sarcastic, just in case you missed it.)

The poster children for zero tolerance may soon be the Bush girls, who are about to run afoul of “three strikes and you’re out” laws on the books in Texas, laws aimed at those constant threats to clean yards and Western civilization, college students using fake ID’s. The thought of Barb and Jenna, dressed in stylish yellow prison garb, staring out from behind bars in a Texas jail, doing guest spots on Court TV…well, it may just be what America needs. Go for it girls! One more bottle and you’ll save the country from those beer swilling college mobs!

OK, OK. Enough of this. Let’s get serious for a moment. First of all, zero tolerance is a public relations ploy that makes schools look like they are run by Vlad the Impaler. These rules hurt good kids, they allow no intelligent discretion, they make the community angry and really deal with a complex problem with a bulldozer instead of a scalpel. Pull these policies back a bit, people! Leave yourself some room. Suspend a kid for a day, don’t automatically expel! Show some IQ.

Yes, I hear that voice in the back. I KNOW this is all about lawyers. I know that schools have to protect themselves from the lawsuits that come in our culture anytime a school can be blamed for not doing enough. I might suggest that expelling every kid who colors outside the lines is going to bring about a few lawsuits as well. Heck- I’m about to get a lawyer and sue just for being annoyed! If my valedictorian daughter was expelled and not allowed at graduation for having a kitchen knife in her car after a weekend of moving (true story), I would sue, and sue and sue some more. Then I would hunt down the principal and…and…and… well, do STUFF to him. Wake up people!

Insane rules will not turn around youth culture. I am sorry. It won’t happen with all the zero tolerance rules and school uniforms and curfews and drug assemblies in the universe. But, say the do-gooders in the gallery, isn’t it helpful that at least some adults care? Sure, but the use of administrative and judicial blunt force is not caring. If you would turn that caring into more schools, more teachers, more options in education and more support for parents, you will make a difference. Fund more tutors. Get classroom size down. Quit forcing all kids into highly academic tracts. Rediscover and diversify vocational education. Create varieties of punitive and restorative discipline that changes values and perceptions, not just throws kids to the dogs. Make teachers accountable for teaching. Identify risky kids and get them help, don’t throw them out and forget them. They will wind up in someone’s school. Making your school better and our community worse is not an answer.

Zero tolerance is really zero thinking, and zero justice in the best sense. We can do better if we care enough to work at it.

And let’s not leave Jenna and Barb rotting in jail. Surely we can find a way to let responsible 18 year olds have the privilege of a beer or glass of wine in a bar? Good grief, college kids drink, and our cultural attitude that they cannot drink responsibly has ushered in the most irresponsible generation of young drinkers in history. 60% of 18-20 year old college students drink every weekend. When are we going to end this schizo approach to young adulthood, acting as if the right path is 21 years of puritanical teetotalism followed by moderate drinking as adults? Americans look ridiculous compared to other nations that teach their young people to drink moderately. Instead, we have a binging, rioting mob every time 20 kids can find a few beers. It will require a major cultural shift to change the drinking culture among college students, but it is certainly possible to be realistic and not play such a ridiculous game of denial with young people.

They can vote, drive and serve in the military. We give them jobs, condoms and unparalleled freedom. They should be able to order a beer or glass of wine in an establishment. Drinking is an American rite of passage. Regular drunkenness is now badge of adulthood as well. These two are not the same thing. Perhaps we could make it a little less exotic if we allowed a limited legal drinking privilege to 18 year olds, and expected them to act like they are worthy of that trust. And do we really want a country where three instances of a 19 year old drinking a beer sends them to jail for six months? Or even goes on their record at all? So what?

Americans have a habit of passing absurdly tough laws when they don’t want to do the hard work of changing their communities, families and culture. “Three strikes and you’re out” and the zero tolerance follies are expressions of cultural inertia and apathy. Conservatives should stop handing massive doses of authority to people who don’t know what to do with it and start working for reasonable laws, reasonable sentences and common sense cultural renewal. A police state is not a good thing class.

And by the way girls- the liberals in Austin know who your daddy is, and they hate him. The NY Post has reported that the only reason you are getting busted like this is the anti-Bush contingent will not let you get by with jaywalking down there. You are going to have to realize that while Chelsea Clinton could have had human sacrifice on toast while sitting in a lesbian truck stop every weekend, you can’t blink your eyes in church. Welcome to the unbiased liberal universe.