An extreme reaction to bad events. A policy that no deviation from the rule, no matter how small, or whatever its intention, will be accepted. Often includes going after just the appearance of violating the policy, and sometimes even going after the appearance of having the appearance of violating the policy.

After some incidents of school shootings, zero tolerance has been the rule at some schools, who have done such wonderful things as suspending a girl for months because she had fingernail clippers that supposedly had a small knife in them. Or suspending a boy for four months because he convinced a suicidal girl to give him the knife and he put it inside his locker.

Zero tolerance is in effect the sacrifice of a few for the good of the others.

Zero tolerance is a policy imposed by legislators, and other policy makers, in answer to concerns expressed by the public, called up in part by them, and by media. It is presented as a response to rampant drug use and violence and the very real consequences they have, and in the eyes of its advocates has itself no unintended consequences.

In one realm, testing for the presence of drugs, what could be easier? New technology is so sensitive that the detection of the smallest trace of some banned substance, down beyond the billionth part, is routine. The residue of marijuana in an ash-tray is now enough to put one in jail, and with asset seizure laws, the end of legal consequences is not found with incarceration.

In sports, the use of this technology in the enforcement of anti-doping, has led to the detection of substances believed to be banned; the small amounts detectable, however, may not be the results of the consumption of the perceived banned substance at all. There are medical, and legal, controversies raging.

An observation often made, so much so that it is probably urban myth, is that every bill in circulation in the United States is contaminated with cocaine residue. Under zero tolerance is everyone who has American money in their possession guilty of drug possession?

I would say no, but then I would be exercising discretion, weighing individual circumstances, and making a commonsense determination.

But zero tolerance admits no such discretion. Examples cited in the write ups above, and the one that started me thinking--Do not take ammunition to school--deal with the issue of violence in schools, certainly troubling, but not all that recent, though raised in our minds relatively recently by the media and politicians.

Zero tolerance is the technologicalization, or even the mechanization of those officials on the line, whether willingly or not, to enforce the exact letter of policy--no tolerance of circumstances is permitted. Immediate expulsion policies, anti-doping policies, so-called sentencing guidelines, all have the effect of removing the local official from any part in judging the circumstances of the accused, whether student, athlete, or defendant.

There is nothing controversial about this, our emotions have been wiped up to the electoral benefit of some politicians, and the monetary benefit of the media. (All the more ironic, when many of the same politicians extol the virtues of local control.)

But think for a minute, this technology, whose model we wish people to emulate, also measures the presence of toxics in our food, water, air, the things around us we use everyday: pesticides, heavy metals, PCBs, cancer-causing chemicals of all kinds, lead, food additives, dyes, synthetic chemicals of all kinds, this is not an exhaustive list.

The effects of these toxics is not conjecture, or is it? Science, uncontained by subjective morality, may give us the clear vision, but the same science, in the pay of the very interests that produce these toxics, clouds our judgement, asks us to consider circumstances: the very essence of risk-benefit analysis.

If we took the same moral stance with respect to toxics as we do towards drugs and violence--its wrong and the consequences be damned--what would happen to industry, the economy, to jobs? What would be the hardship imposed upon people if there were no tolerances for their presence in the environment, these tolerances hard won, and ever subject to relaxation or removal? What are the hardships with them?

If we can create a science, call it big science, that benefits industry, can we not create a morality that benefits people?

Recently, zero tolerance became big news here in Michigan. Jeremy Hix, a student at my alma mater, Holt High School, has been the focus of many a newspaper article outlining the atrocious misuse of the zero tolerance law in the state of Michigan and across the country.

Jeremy's story begins at Holt's prom this past May. Hix is of Scottish decent and decided to wear full bagpiper's regalia to the prom instead of the traditional tux. The evening was uneventful until for some reason, a teacher got around to questioning Jeremy about his attire and discovered a ceremonial knife called a sgain dubh with a three-and-a-half inch blade tucked in his sock. Never had Jeremy taken the knife out of its place until the teacher requested him to. He was promptly suspended for the remainder of his junior year and talk of an expulsion under the zero tolerance law flew.

Among the media coverage of the Hix incident was an article run this week in the Lansing State Journal* outlining some of the sillier punishments that have been carried out under zero tolerance laws:

  1. An 11-year-old girl was taken from school by police because she brought a plastic knife to school, according to the Boston Globe. The girl's grandmother had given her the knife to cut a piece of chicken.
  2. Earlier this year, a Pontiac Michigan fifth-grader was sent home for two days because he took a gun-shaped piece of jewelry to school.
  3. A fifth-grader was suspended for a year after he took some razor blades from a friend who had threatened to use them on other students, the Baltimore Sun reported earlier this year.
  4. An 8-year-old boy was suspended from school in Canada after he pointed a piece of breaded chicken at a teacher and said "Bang." Nova Scotia school officials said policy defines a weapon as "anything designed to cause death, injury or intimidation."

Aren't zero tolerance laws designed to prevent violence in schools? How is suspending a child armed only with a chicken leg supposed to help? What will be the next step here? Suspending students wearing belts because they could potentially be used as an instrument of strangulation?

The Holt Public Schools school board was scheduled to meet on July 24 to determine Jeremy's scholastic fate. It was expected that they would vote to expel him. Prior to the meeting, however, Jeremy's lawyer reached an agreement with school administrators after five hours of discussion. Jeremy will be suspended for the first semester of his senior year, but will be allowed to return to school for the spring semester. In the meantime, he will likely take courses at Michigan State University so he will be able to graduate on time with the rest of his class.

I think it is sad when we allow out-of-the-norm incidents to rule our thinking and make us paranoid. No, school is not the place for a weapon. And yes, Jeremy probably should have known to omit the decorative knife from his outfit. But obviously he did not intend to use it as a weapon. What good will it do to make him miss half his senior year of high school? How is it helpful to suspend a girl who brought a plastic knife with her lunch? School administrators and authorities need to use common sense when interpreting the zero tolerance law and realize that despite its name, there are some logical exceptions.


* The Lansing State Journal is hardly the best paper in Michigan, but it is the paper that is always in the break room here at work and therefore I read it. The list of incidents included above were taken directly from the July 22 paper.

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