Thursday, October 15, 2009

This zero tolerance stuff is fantasic!

Whalen was suspended from Lansingburgh High School last month after administrators found the 11/2-inch key-chain knife in his glove compartment, an infraction of the district's zero-tolerance policy for weapons on school grounds. It was a gift from his grandfather, Robert Whalen, chief of the Hoosick Falls Police Department.
Thank goodness the little blade from the survival kit in his car was turned over to the proper authorities! Someone could have been hurt!

You must understand that zero tolerance policies are designed to insulate staff from any sort of blame or backlash; like a sort of strawman to hold up when parents or whomever show up to complain. "Don't blame us, blame the policy. We just enforce the policy as it's written." In effect, zero tolerance policies are a machine that's built, activated, and then allowed to wander around doing its thing while officials/employees/management can sit back confident that some ingenious lawyer has to get through the machine before it can get to them.

The error in this is that zero tolerance policies are started in what's regarded as an effort to stop or prevent some sort of crime, but the policies cannot determine whether or not a crime was committed because they are not designed to establish the elements of a crime; they are only designed to punish based on an individual violating some sort of rule or regulation.

An extreme example would be for a mental hospital to make it a violation of internal policy to be out of bed between the hours of 10pm and 5am, with a punishment of a refusal to give treatment, and then enforce the policy against a patient who was out of bed because they were on the floor thrashing around in a seizure. The policy's intent would be to keep patients from wandering the halls or getting into trouble in their rooms, but the result could very well be to punish someone for something entirely different. Sure, the patient was out of bed which violated policy, and it's unfortunate that they are going to be punished for something out of their control, but hey, don't blame me. Blame the policy. That poor guy got hung up in the machine. It's not my fault.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the guy's authoritarian grandfather who gave him the knife condones zero tolerance policies - with a blatant but reasonable exception for his grandson, of course - because he used to apply them for DUIs. And DUI laws are well known as being a fantastic policy.

Ultimately, I place the blame on lawyers since I believe that just about all of America's problems can be traced back to them, but it's high time we start holding educators responsible again, instead of allowing them to craft regulations that can ultimately destroy a child's future.

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