Over the course of the last few years, more and more schools have implemented zero-tolerance policies against violence, weapons, and other “vices” that can supposedly lead to trouble. While I agree with the moral standard that violence and the use of weapons are a negative influence on our schools, the interpretation of the zero-tolerance rules have gotten distinctly out of hand.
Since these rules have been put into place by school boards across the country, countless news stories arise that have caused innocent students to be punished simply because of an arbitrary policy. For example, a news story appeared on the internet today (May 7, 2005), on the website of WIStv in Rock Hill, SC. A middle school student had attended a function with the Boy Scouts over the weekend, a troop outing. The assistant principal heard a jingling in the student’s pocket and asked the student about the noise. The student volunteered that they were nails left over from a camping trip, accidentally left in his pocket, and promptly handed them over to school administration. He was the taken into custody of a school/community police officer, on the grounds of possession of an unlawful weapon, where he was turned over to his father. Another incident from several months ago (September 29, 2004), published on the AZ Central website, resulted in a student being suspended from inhaling helium from a balloon filled as a decoration for a school dance. To add the situation, the student was actually assigned to assist in the decoration of the gymnasium as part of a class. These situations are just some of the thousands of incidents each year of a school administration following the letter of the policy and not the spirit.
To give the schools credit, many school boards instituted this policy as a reaction to the Columbine shootings as well as the series of smaller-scale shootings that followed. In a litigous society as we have in the United States, these disctricts are doing the best they can to protect themselves from exposure to liability or negligence claims. Along with the enactment of this policy, the districts have mandated to their administrators to strictly comply with and enforce the zero-tolerance rules among faculty, staff, and students.
However, the conflict arises in the deeper issues surrounding the ethics of these regulations. As most of the television-viewing audience in this country knows, our legal system is based upon presuming one to be innocent until proven guilty. With programs such as 3 franchises of “CSI,” 4 incarnations of “Law & Order,” and a smattering of others, one can find it difficult to find something else on basic cable. Zero-tolerance policies have the exact opposite effect. The student is presumed to be guilty the moment each one walks through the door to the school. The student and parents do not have the opportunity to explain the circumstances of the situation. By doing so removes the human factor from the equation. Principals are not to blame for this state of education. Administrators simply become organic machines handing out punishments without consideration to the student’s previous record or the intent of the act. It’s not that the principals don’t want to take such details into consideration; the good ones do. However, between state and federal regulations, as well as the actions of the local school board, no left room for common sense and judgement. Of course, all of this is happening while we attempt to teach our children to develop their critical thinking skills.
Our country has struggled with the issue and the realities of public and private education for several decades. From desegregation to school shootings to zero-tolerance policies, school boards have had to adapt to a wide range of difficulties and growing pains. Like any growing enterprise, districts have experienced various successes and failures. The zero-tolerance policy is a very large failure by enforcing an arbitrary rule without consideration of mitigating factors, as well as teaching students to presume each other guilty as they proceed through life. While having a broad distaste for behaviors that are illegal or unethical is a positive position to have, teaching children to avoid critical thinking and common sense is a far worse danger.