ZT: Too Much Coverage?

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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11 Comments on “ZT: Too Much Coverage?

  1. This issue is downright scary; so much for the “Home of the Brave and Land of the Free”.

    We may be down, Wilson, but as long as I have the freedom to point out this stupidity, and people take action as they come to understand the situation, we’re not out. -rc

  2. Are there web sites that comprehensively document these random acts of idiocy, broken down by state (and maybe even county?) so that those of us in that area can complain? Not one of the events you mentioned occurred in Florida, much less [my] county, so my voice won’t matter too much to officials in Virginia and North Carolina.

    I don’t break stories down by region in my archives, but this is a national issue that you should address with your federal representatives. -rc

  3. I’m from Massachusetts — home of the pedophile priests. It just hit me that we’re throwing 4th graders out of school for nail clippers and allowing priests 10 strikes ’til they’re out. Does anyone else see something wrong with this? 

  4. I was born in Poland and I have spent most of my life traveling. I’ve been to U.S. as well for extended period of time. I’ve witnessed with my own eyes how great your nation can be when I was sitting in the hotel in Denver on the 11th of Sept.

    But reading your ZT stories shows me how really stupid and easily led your nation can be. We don’t have a ZT here and we don’t have such a great political correctness as you do. I wonder what kind of future soldiers, protectors of freedom, or even teachers are going to come out of your scared kids.

    Good luck, guys, and please — keep that stuff to yourself.

    I’m working on it! -rc

  5. Last week a reader asked, ‘Isn’t this the same type of atmosphere that pervaded Russia during the time of Communism?’

    No, it’s worse! My dad grew up in the Soviet Union, and despite being a straight-A student was usually in trouble for various pranks, including ‘practical pyrotechnics’ — like the time he and his friends blew up an old outhouse. (Later, he went on to become first violin in the Odessa opera house.)

    I hate to think of what would have happened to him in present-day America.

    Many others pointed out that the “rat-out” rule sounds an awful lot like something from the book 1984. Eighteen years ago, we were all so smug that the concepts in that book turned out to be silly. They suddenly aren’t so far-fetched anymore…. -rc

  6. Speaking as the son of former teachers, I should think the solution to solving the ZT problem (at least where schools are concerned) is quite obvious. Given that the school system is supported on a daily basis via tax dollars based upon how many students attend, if you remove your child from the school and encourage other parents of like mind to do the same thing, their funding will dry up like a mud puddle on a sidewalk in the summer heat.

    Indeed, if there were an en masse exodus of children from the ZT schools of this nation, you’d see those craven administrators reverse their stances so fast their necks would snap. When the almighty dollar is your god, you’ll start praying a different tune once the blessings stop flowing your way.

    All I know is that my newborn son will NEVER set foot in a public school that espouses anything close to the kind of garbage I read about in your newsletter. I’d sooner teach my child at home than turn him over to the vile examples of thoughtless conformity that infest our educational system.

    I like it. -rc

  7. My wife & I used to operate a karate studio. Naturally, our children were also students. Like guns, martial arts training can be a terrible weapon for misuse, so mental discipline is just as necessary as physical to keep it in check.

    Naturally, there have always been bullies in school, but when confronted, my son would simply not be sucked in. Unfortunately, bullies don’t seem very capable of distinguishing between fear and indifference. Confrontations persisted and we suggested he discuss the situation with trusted teachers, but that seemed fruitless. Finally, when a confrontation became violent, training and instinct took over, and my son successfully defended himself. Not by beating up the bully, but certainly enough to make the bully back off. Sadly, that did get the notice of the school and my son was going to be suspended for several weeks.

    We contacted the school and reminded them that he’d tried to use conventional methods to defuse the situation, but that the school hadn’t been inclined to commit itself. Still, it was only on the threat of a lawsuit, where all the factors would be brought out, including the school’s inaction, that their decision for suspension was reversed.

    As someone pointed out, though, we can’t lay the blame solely upon the schools or their staff. It is Society, itself. Daily, I’m seeing more incidents of “bullies” all around us. I’m not talking about low-life thugs you might find on the “bad side of town” but everyday people. They’re the ones who push their way into waiting lines, who shove their way around on the streets in their cars, the ones who have learned that others will automatically back down, either out of fear or simple disinclination for direct confrontation.

    So, when I encounter people like that, what do I do? If I ignore them, I’m enabling them by being one more of the “sheep.” If I confront their rudeness, I’m over-reacting. Well, frankly, I do ignore them. Nobody elected me to be a policeman for Society’s manners. It’s something that ALL of Society needs to deal with, starting with their own children. How many of them run rampant in the stores with no supervision of any kind? Argue what you will about religious morals, but there are social morals necessary in any crowded society. Most parents aren’t teaching those social morals to their children because so many parents don’t even hold themselves to any civil morals.

    Likewise, they don’t want anyone else teaching their children any “values” that just might be contrary to their own, so they embrace a One-Size-Fits-All policy which leads to Zero Tolerance. No thinking necessary; just add water. Because thinking requires moral judgement.

  8. No way do you do too much ZT coverage. It’s a serious problem in this country and you’re right to cover it. Lots of the stories are amusing anyhow, and that’s great. But too many people in this country want everything they see and hear to be entertaining, and never to have to focus on anything serious or unpleasant (or true).

    In fact, we want to commend you on your ZT coverage and we liked your article in the 15 April email. Good work!

  9. There can never be too much coverage about Zero Tolerance. Frankly, it’s insane and it feels more like attempts to get younger people to accept totalitarianism as a fact for when the grow up. It needs to end not only in our schools but in our work places.

    I recently resigned from my job because of so much idiocy, among them, Zero Tolerance. Can you believe I was actually reprimanded because in a moment of frustration, I said to a co-worker that I was fed up and tempted to cash in my 401k just so I could get out and find something better suited to my needs? Yes, I was. Someone eavesdropping told management they didn’t want to hear my negativity. That’s how they deal with discontent there – squash it.

  10. Imagine that, a job which discourages independent thinking. And here you thought The Emperor’s New Clothes was just a fable. Tut, tut! Don’t you DARE say something that might contradict “conventional wisdom.”

    Let’s see, 95% of us work for 45 years in a daily grind just trying to make ends meet, hoping we save enough for retirement but still banking on a company-sponsored pension AND Social Security. If that’s “conventional” wisdom, then perhaps it’s time to encourage some UNcoventional thinking. The problem, though, is that it’s tough enough to herd the masses without letting them think, too. Just feed them dogma and pull the old ZT chain on the few who might rock the boat.


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