My Zero Tolerance page gets lots of readers who presumably find it via web searches. One of those this week was David, a high school senior in California, who has some insight of his own into the problem. He writes:
I just finished reading your page on all the “zero tolerance” policies and felt the need to share my own personal experience with them. When I was a sophomore another student and I got into an argument about a P.E. baseball game. It started as a simple “I’m safe”, “No, I tagged you out” situation until he decided to tell me to meet him after school to fight about it. I told him I didn’t want to fight him and that it’s just a game. He took a swing and missed and then finally walked away (the whole time I was slowly stepping back from him as he advanced). At the end of the period we all went into the locker room thinking the whole thing was behind us, until he started running through the locker room yelling my name (I didn’t hear him and didn’t know it was happening).
A few of my friends tried to calm him down but failed. Next thing I knew I was yanked backwards over a bench and saw him swinging at me wildly as I fell. He landed a couple of hits, but nothing serious. Before I had a chance to react the football coach got hold of him and pulled him away. I was then taken to the office to be punished and the school cop checked our records. It turns out it was his second fight in 2 years, so according to policy he should have been arrested, but wasn’t. It was my first fight since elementary school. The school suspended both of us for 5 days. I was in the clear for fighting, as outlined in the school’s “zero tolerance” policy. He was supposed to be arrested, I was jumped and didn’t even fight back, and we both got the same punishment.
Despite the fact that I was in no way guilty of any crime, a few of my teachers decided that since I was suspended, I must be lying about my innocence and therefore they shouldn’t give me my work to make up while I was out. Luckily my mom went to the school and managed to get hold of the vice principal who suspended me. The VP told my mom that had it not been for the “zero tolerance” policy I never would have been suspended, and then she forced my teachers to give me my work.
I apologize for the length of the story, but it still gets my blood flowing when I think about how unfair and unrealistic these policies are. My question to you is how do we stop this? I have not talked to one adult who thinks these policies are a good idea, including my vice principal, so how did they get put in place? And more importantly, how do we get rid of them? I truly enjoyed your article and wish I had discovered your website much sooner. Keep up the good work. P.S. I’m 18 now so you can be sure I’ll be voting against anything that supports “zero tolerance”.
Well, David, covering “what to do about it” is a large part of what I need to do to update my ZT page! It’s been discussed in this space quite a bit over the years, but a recap is in order.
The Macro “What to Do”
First, what to do in general. To start, one must understand the issue. That’s usually done in one of two ways: by experiencing it (as you have) and truly realizing what these policies mean as they’re applied these days, or by reading case after case after case of example stories just like yours, which helps people to truly realize what these policies mean as they’re applied these days, which is what I’m doing about it. That awareness among readers inevitably leads to condemnation of those policies.
What good does that do? It creates a body of people (some would say “voters”) who must then stand up and say “NO!” when these policies are put to use in ridiculous ways. Not just to protest when their own kids are “ZT’d”, but to protest when any kid in their school or city gets screwed over.
And your case is far from the most ridiculous; the examples on my ZT pages show just some of the outrageous stories I’ve collected over the years.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke supposedly said in the 1700s. The corollary: to get evil to stop, good people need to do something, like speak out. You don’t need a newsletter with a ton of subscribers to do that; you can be even more effective by standing up at a school board meeting and saying “THAT’S NOT RIGHT” — and then explaining why. You may be turned away, but if other good people stand beside you, that determined crowd cannot be ignored for long.
So the second most important thing is: stand behind others who speak out, because they truly need your support. Yes, this is a national, even international, problem, and it’s growing beyond schools, as other of my stories have shown. But the solution starts locally — with you.
The Micro: Stand Up!
But if you’ve been ZT’d, you need help now; it’s too late to start building a coalition. Quite a few people emailed me their own ZT stories, things that have either happened to them, or to others at their schools. Some were several years old, yet the events are still very fresh in their minds, and they’re angry. They know injustice when they see it, and to see such injustice being institutionalized in rules makes them seethe.
And rightly so: It’s just that growing anger, which I helped to start in the first place, that I’m trying to tap into — a feedback loop. The tagline on one of the ZT stories I wrote recently — “This will continue to get worse until enough citizens say ‘STOP!'” — is quite literally true.
I set out some time ago to show that these stories aren’t some sort of aberration at just some schools here and there; this is a societal problem that’s widespread not only in schools, not only in the U.S., but is growing toward the norm everywhere. And as long as we just sit on our butts and watch, it will continue to grow.
Only by saying “NO!” and “STOP!” will something happen. And that’s not just when it happens to your kid, but when it happens to any kid, any teen, any adult. When you see something that’s clearly not right, you need to say so. In public meetings, in letters to the editor, in letters to your elected representatives.
And when you see someone else standing up to defend others being railroaded by ZT, you need to stand together. Back them up, and ask that others back you up. There’s something very powerful in a crowd of people showing up at a public meeting to say “I don’t want this” — I’ve seen it. I’ve been in the crowd and voiced my support.
So you need to gather people to back you, and head for the next school board meeting. Educate those folks by showing them the stories in this blog. Print some out for them — and the school board. Use the talking points I’ve raised in these posts.
Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it takes time. But if you, who understands the problem, doesn’t work toward fixing it, who will?
I really can’t do more to illustrate the ZT problem than to demonstrate it with stories and suggest how to deal with it. I’m doing my part, and will continue to do so. I hope you’ll stand up and be counted too. It’s the right thing to do.
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