Zero tolerance policies do nothing but allow schools and school districts a way to avoid using proper judgment in settling issues on campuses. If one needed any more proof of this, look no further than the six-year-old boy who may spend 45 days in reform school for bringing a Cub Scout camping utensil tool to school. Yes, it contains a knife … and a fork … and a spoon:
The New York Times asked the salient question this weekend:
Spurred in part by the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, many school districts around the country adopted zero-tolerance policies on the possession of weapons on school grounds. More recently, there has been growing debate over whether the policies have gone too far.
But, based on the code of conduct for the Christina School District, where Zachary is a first grader, school officials had no choice. They had to suspend him because, “regardless of possessor’s intent,” knives are banned.
But the question on the minds of residents here is: Why do school officials not have more discretion in such cases?
“Zachary wears a suit and tie some days to school by his own choice because he takes school so seriously,” said Debbie Christie, Zachary’s mother, who started a Web site, helpzachary.com, in hopes of recruiting supporters to pressure the local school board at its next open meeting on Tuesday. “He is not some sort of threat to his classmates.”
Still, some school administrators argue that it is difficult to distinguish innocent pranks and mistakes from more serious threats, and that the policies must be strict to protect students.
Well, here’s the first problem. Policies don’t protect children; teachers and administrators protect children at school. It’s almost as if the districts use their policies as totems or charms, thinking that if they wave them at everybody, they’ll all be safe without having to take responsibility for using judgment in applying them. It’s the new bureaucratic superstition, and it leads to absurdities such as tossing a six-year-old into reform school for taking his new Cub Scout accessory to school.
Real security requires judgment and adults willing to take some responsibility. At its heart, the slavish devotion to the letter of zero-tolerance policies is nothing more than passing the buck, a craven attempt at CYA while posing as defenders of children. There is a vast qualitative difference between a child who brings a Cub Scout utensil and another who waves a switchblade at other kids, and to treat them the same is not just insane, it’s counterproductive to the end goal of school safety.
The school board meets tonight at 7:30 pm in the Christina School District in Newark, Delaware. Hopefully the Christies get plenty of support from their community and stop the assignment of Zacahary to a reform school for nine weeks.
Update: Radio Vice Online highlights another case of Zero Tolerance/Zero Sense.
Update II: There is a website for Zachary’s supporters to express their outrage over this ridiculous decision, HelpZachary.com.