Zero Tolerance Equals Zero Sense

So now we are having 1st graders (and perhaps even pre-kindergartners) charged with sexual harassment in school–and even having police called. In a Washington Post article today, Post staff writer Brigid Schulte describes incidents where children as young as four are accused of sexual harassment. This follows on a tradition of imposing zero tolerance policies in schools for other offenses such as bringing weapons, drugs or other contraband to school. In theory, the deterrent value is so strong and the prohibition so stringent, that no one will violate the rules. In theory, zero tolerance avoids having to evaluate conduct and excuses or defenses to charges. A pat on the butt by a six-year old, uninvited and unwelcome, is sexual harassment regardless of intent. A paring knife in a lunch box to cut an apple is a weapons offense; automatic suspension, with no defense. Asthma inhalers must be in the nurse’s office and don’t you dare have a couple Midol, aspirin or other OTC drugs in your locker at school. Does any of this make sense?

Is there a difference between bumping into someone accidentally and stabbing them with a knife? Is there a difference between a paring knife and a machete? Is there a difference between cocaine, marijuana and aspirin? Schools all too often are dangerous places. Adult rapists, ax murderers, drug kingpins, etc., were all kids once–going to one elementary school or another. No doubt many of them were not angels then. But when you treat the inconsequential mistakes or minor infractions of small children with the same process and punishment as heinous offenses, it makes no sense. It teaches kids that rules (and later laws) are arbitrary and impose capricious consequences based on their status as school children. Later, when they grow up, they disrespect more sensible laws or regulations because they assume them to be just as arbitrary. If you are a teacher, a principal or an administrator I have no doubt you have a difficult job but I have to tell you–zero tolerance makes no sense. It’s not justice. It’s not fair. It doesn’t have the intended results.