A couple of letters regarding Zero Tolerance, starting with Wayne in NWT, Canada:
It is amazing sometimes what schools come up with. Those stories make wonder about the true example we are setting. These arguments all have a semblance of validity, and therein lies the danger. It seems like a good thing to do, but it is very, very wrong. As an aside, I think zero tolerance is probably being used because it is easier than having to monitor the situation and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Most certainly they are. We wouldn’t want the people that take care of our kids to think now, would we?! And indeed I even get “I-don’t-want-to-think” reactions from some readers. Here’s Ben in California:
I generally like your column, but of late you have gone overboard with the zero tolerance stuff. One or two stories are mildly interesting, but every week! Besides, you have yet to make the case that this is an important issue.
I find the perception fascinating: before the 3 February issue there hasn’t been a ZT story in True since the December 2 issue, 10 weeks ago! (And before that was the October 7 issue.)
That the stories are so outrageous that they stick in people’s minds that much is testimony to just how obscenely damaging they are. And if I haven’t made the case that purposeful emotional abuse of children is “important,” perhaps I’ve failed. But judging by the tone of most of the reader mail, that’s not the case either.
Indeed while I don’t want to give the impression that True is about ZT, True is not about “funny news stories,” it’s about “weird news stories” that I spin against a “humorous, ironic or opinionated” comment in thought-provoking ways.
Emphasis on “or”! True is not always meant to be funny, and schools insisting that immature students must follow rules to the letter or face the consequences, while adult teachers who ought to know better are allowed to return to teach the next day after threatening to shoot her 13-year-old students (as in a story last week) certainly is, in my opinion, “weird”!
Most readers, of course, do consider it “an important issue,” and the letters show just how important. Meredith in Massachusetts:
Your stories in this issue (and all the ones on ZT) give me one more reason to be glad that I am now homeschooling my son! I live in Massachusetts, where children have actually been taken out of their homes by [the Department of Social Services] for ‘Educational Neglect’ because their parents refused to submit an educational plan. (Regardless of what I think of what the parents did, I don’t think it was a good idea to flout the law that way. It definitely should NOT be grounds for DSS intervention if the kids are clearly safe and not abused.)
In too many states, DSS has way too much power — you are presumed guilty and it’s very difficult to prove innocence, especially if you are poor and cannot afford adequate legal representation. I run an email list and have a web site of online resources for families with gifted/special needs children, [and communicate with] parent attorneys and advocates for special ed kids, and the stories I hear are incredibly scary. Kids with autism-spectrum disorders who bump into teachers being charged with assault, while teachers verbally or physically abuse kids with impunity. Kids being bullied and attacked in the schoolyard for being different and the schools refuse to intervene (‘They have to learn to work it out’), then the kids get suspended or expelled when they finally fight back out of necessity.
I’ve heard from a lot of readers who home-school their children, but as Meredith points out, that doesn’t necessarily keep your kids safe from the ZT zealots. Fascists make house calls.
Graham in England:
I think the root of the problem is that your country — and increasing others too, including mine — is infested with lawyers. By saying ‘we were only following the rules,’ especially when those rules carry the force of law, school officials are free of the fear of having to defend their judgements in court, and the school system is free of the risk of having to pay out compensation when those judgements are proved to be wrong. ZT is the product of a litigation and compensation culture gone mad, and I think you’re attacking the wrong target by blaming it purely on teachers, local government officers and lawmakers.
Indeed I have pointed out in the past that the fear of lawsuits is driving much of the bureaucrats’ actions. In fact one reason ZT is so much more of an issue here than in Britain is you have a much more rational legal system — the “loser pays” in lawsuits. (If you sue someone and lose, you pay the legal fees of both sides. If who you sue is in the wrong, that makes it much more likely that they’ll settle, too, to avoid paying your legal fees to sue them. “Loser pays” thus cuts down on frivolous claims, freeing up the courts for more weighty issues.)
Overlawyered discusses applying the concept in the U.S.
Jane in Alaska:
I REALLY enjoyed your issue on ZT. I’m a teacher, and I’m going to use this issue as required reading in my class. Because we are so isolated we are, for the most part, outside of the absurdities of urban and even rural schools. The Zero Tolerance issue has, however, surfaced with a vengeance in our tiny school with federal regulations insisting that ALL schools must incorporate Zero Tolerance in all areas. The kids in our tiny villages are fussing because our rules are getting ‘too strict’ and, even I admit, pretty idiotic. I’m going to show them this issue and give them the ‘it could be worse’ lesson! I’m going to forward this issue to all the other teachers I know with a sense of humor.
I was fascinated with the idea of making the issue class reading, so I asked for details. Jane replied: “I’ll introduce it to them as I do all social issues. We are so isolated here that kids don’t grow up with the same ‘conviction’ for social/moral/environmental/etc. issues that kids on the road system grow up with. I like to get them thinking about issues so they’re not so ignorant. I think one of the best things to teach a kid is to research things, to learn about them before making decisions.”
My kind of teacher!
Last, an idea suggested by many; I’ve chosen one particularly good example from Garison in Hawaii:
The only way to eliminate Zero Tolerance in schools is to enforce it fully. Teachers who display weapons or pass drugs in any form should be arrested or put on suspension, just like the students. That may seem like a far step to take, but there is a less direct method. A group of concerned parents can circulate a petition stating that unless the ZT policies are publicly dropped immediately, all rules that apply to students will thereafter apply to the faculty as well. If a student can be arrested for drawing a picture of a gun, then teachers can be arrested for showing pictures of guns in textbooks. Students have been arrested for passing cough drops; there are aspirins in the faculty room. You would probably be surprised how many people will sign that petition.
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