Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Losing tolerance for Zero Tolerance

It might be a couple years old but things haven't changed: this excellent article by Randy Cassingham over at This Is True talks about some incidents in his home state of Colorado.

United Press International, November 1997
A 10-year-old girl at McElwain Elementary in Thornton, Colo., was one of a group of girls who "repeatedly" asked a certain boy on the playground if he liked them. The boy complained to a teacher, so school administrators, citing the district's "zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy", decided to suspend her. After an outcry from outraged parents, the school changed its mind. A district spokeswoman said school officials "probably" overreacted, but "it's all in how you look at it."

United Press International, November 1997
A Colorado Springs, Colo., school district says it did the right thing when it suspended 6-year-old Seamus Morris under the school's zero-tolerance drug policy. The drug? Lemon drops. Taylor Elementary School administrators called an ambulance after a teacher saw the boy give another student some candy, which was a brand teachers didn't recognize. "It was not something you would purchase in a grocery store," a district spokesman said. "It was from a health-food store." A spokesman for St. Claire's Lemon Tarts, however, noted that the candy is indeed sold in Colorado's largest grocery store chain. School officials were not impressed, and not only upheld the half-day suspension, but told the boy's mother that a child who brings candy to school is comparable to a teen who takes a gun to school.

Reuters, January, 1998
An 11-year-old British schoolboy met an Australian classmate and greeted him by saying, "G'day, sport." The boy, who was not named, was "caught" by a teacher, the school said in a statement, and while "there was no maliciousness or intent" on the boy's part, he was charged with racism for his greeting. "The boy was counseled, ...dialogue has taken place with parents," and the boy was made to write "I must not use racist remarks" 60 times, said the statement by Beverley Grammar School in Yorkshire. Tony Brett Young of the Australian High Commission was concerned it was a case of political correctness gone overboard. "'G'day sport' is part of our vernacular," he said. "It's just a traditional and friendly manner of speaking."

What are the stories above? The little girl wasn't sexually harassing a little boy, she was being a little girl, trying to learn how to deal with the opposite sex -- a trial-and-error process (don't you remember?) where the errors shouldn't be treated as a felony. The six-year-old boy wasn't using or selling drugs, he was sharing candy. Sharing candy! And the British lad wasn't making light of a fellow white boy's ancestry, he was trying to greet a potential friend in a way that was familiar to him.

Calling every botched encounter between genders "sexual harassment" tells true victims of that crime that their experience was similar to a schoolyard crush. Calling sharing "drug use" tells children that there's no difference between giving a friend a lemon drop and selling him heroin cut with rat poison. And calling the use of vernacular "racism" demeans people that suffer from horrible crimes: the denial of their ability to live and make a living. And it tells the people that are not involved in these issues that really, these things are just trivial things, nothing to worry about. This racism stuff is not a problem, drugs aren't a scourge, and sexual harassment is just consenting adults with unequal paychecks.

Are these the lessons legislators intend when they pass zero-tolerance laws -- and when bureaucrats enforce them? Because that's what the kids are learning... Terrorizing a little kid for sharing candy -- and justifying it afterward when an outraged parent complains -- doesn't stop drug use. And it never will.

This piece was written nearly ten years ago, yet it seems that any of these incidents could have happened yesterday. Even though school boards have reversed decisions after public outcry, it's not the individual incidents that are the problem; it's the mindset. The parents and media who express this outrage need to continue to pressure the schools into changing their policies, and not just into making individual exceptions.

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