“Zero tolerance” has become standard procedure in schools and many workplaces. The motive is admirable. Weapons, drugs, and sexual harassment have no place in school or at work. In practice, however, “zero tolerance” is often carried to extremes that are absurd and counterproductive.
No one wants dangerous weapons in schools. But under “zero tolerance,” there is no logic, and therefore no logical limit.
● A young child was suspended for bringing to school a toy soldier holding a tiny plastic gun.
● In response to a “women in history” program, a girl wanted to come dressed as sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The teacher told her that toy guns were forbidden. Her parents suggested a broom, but this too was forbidden. Anything representing a gun, even if it were clearly harmless, could not be brought to school.
● Two five-year-olds were suspended for playing cops-and-robbers while simulating guns with their fingers.
● A nine-year-old was sent to therapy for threatening to “shoot” a classmate – with a spitball.
Elsewhere, children were disciplined for bringing in books or papers dealing with guns, or even drawing a picture of a gun. Apparently it is the idea of guns that school administrators find abhorrent. Banning ideas is a dubious activity for public schools in a free country.
But wait – it gets worse.
● A high-school senior had been accepted by the Coast Guard Academy and wanted her yearbook photo to show her winning a rifle-marksmanship prize. The principal objected that the picture would “promote violence.”
● A student wanted to write a paper on the Marine Corps but could find no references in the high-school library. The librarian told him that “violent” books were not allowed.
We remove positive role models, then profess surprise when kids find negative ones in gangs or “gangsta” rappers. And our abhorrence extends not only to the idea of guns, but also to the idea of force used to defend freedom from tyrants. Can freedom survive if we don’t teach young people to defend it – and in fact teach them not to defend it?
The Los Angeles Board of Education banned high-school ROTC cadets from drilling with nonfunctional, wooden, dummy rifles. A board member, unable to distinguish soldiers from cheerleaders, suggested they drill with batons. A student, wiser than the board member, noted, “The reason for having color guards carry rifles is to honor those who died for the flag.”
When I took ROTC in the 1950s in San Francisco, we drilled with Garand army rifles with the firing pins removed, and we were taught gun safety and marksmanship with .22 rifles at a range in the high-school basement. But in my 12 years in urban public schools, there were no shootings. Perhaps we formed a different idea of manhood by receiving our first gun from a master sergeant with combat ribbons on his chest rather than from a drug dealer with gang tattoos.
Boys no longer learn honor from veteran sergeants, and are less likely to learn ethics from parents, teachers, clergy, or Scoutmasters. The resultant violence we blame on guns, not on our foolish educational policies.
There were no stabbings either, though most boys carried knives – Boy Scout knives. Perhaps we learned a different purpose for a knife by using it to make kindling for a fire at Scout Camp.
Switchblade knives are illegal, so they are not in question. Hunting knives and large, lock-blade folding knives also have no place at school. But how dangerous are small pocketknives? Are they any more lethal than nail files, rat-tail combs, barrettes, scissors, paper cutters, cafeteria flatware, baseball bats, or shop-class tools? And what about pencils and pens?
A girl was suspended for putting in her lunch bag a small knife to peel an apple. Another girl was suspended for carrying fingernail clippers. A ten-year-old boy was asked by his teacher to do a “show and tell” for the class about his Boy Scout activities. The boy knew the school had “zero tolerance” for weapons, but he assumed that the teacher’s request included his Boy Scout knife with its 2½-inch blade. He was promptly suspended. One might ask how many people are killed by murderers using Boy Scout knives or fingernail clippers. But to ask that requires the ability to question inflexible rules, an ability we are rapidly losing.
Illegal drugs are a serious problem; bringing them to school is strictly forbidden. But what about legal drugs? In one high school, a student with severe asthma was forbidden to keep his inhaler with him. When an asthma attack occurred, he had to leave class and go to the nurse’s office, despite his doctor’s letter stating that his condition was life‑threatening and required that medication be quickly available.
Even over-the-counter medicines are not immune. Students were suspended for giving classmates a Midol for menstrual discomfort, a Tylenol for headache, or even a cough drop. Teachers seem unable to distinguish mind‑altering, addictive, illegal drugs from cough drops. Why should students pay attention in class if their teachers act like idiots?
Oddly, these same schools insist on dosing many students – mainly boys – with addictive amphetamine drugs to treat hyperactivity, which in some instances means merely acting like a boy. This striking discrepancy goes unnoticed.
Sexual harassment remains a problem to which students should be sensitized. Boys who grope girls should be punished. Boys who make unwanted sexual remarks to girls should be less severely punished. Yet what can be said about the junior-high students who were forbidden to hug one another, or the teachers who are afraid to hug crying kids?
A second-grade boy was suspended for kissing a classmate on the cheek. Is it really harmful for an eight-year-old to show affection in the way that his family shows him affection? Is it not more harmful to sexualize children prematurely by teaching them that innocent, childish words and actions may have sexual connotations? Early childhood should be a time of innocence. Sexualizing young children is a form of child abuse.
Irrational policies about weapons, drugs, and sexual harassment trivialize these serious problems and give us the feeling that we have “done something,” when we have merely made an empty gesture. In addition, we teach kids not to be self-reliant but to be afraid of the world and to depend on authorities for protection.
But the current passion for “zero tolerance” teaches an even more destructive lesson. When we insist that kids adhere rigidly to inflexible rules that were never intended to be so overreaching, we accustom them to obeying unreasonable orders without question. Worse, we teach kids that even teachers and principals must not think for themselves, but must blindly obey higher authorities.
These are good lessons for members of the Hitler Youth, but not for young Americans. In the 20th century, unthinking obedience to authority killed many more people than all the ordinary criminals combined. Citizens who think for themselves and use logic to question authority are indispensable for freedom and, ultimately, for life itself.
Perhaps a historian could explain why we kicked out the Boy Scouts and ROTC and de-emphasized American history, then are dismayed when boys find male role models in gangs.
Perhaps a sociologist could explain why we disdain courage and honor as too “macho,” then were surprised when young “men” at Columbine and Sandy Hook did not think it cowardly or dishonorable to shoot unarmed kids.
Perhaps a Freudian could explain why attempts to demasculinize boys may result in making them more violent, and why some people are so horrified by guns or anything resembling guns.
Perhaps a psychologist could explain why the rebellious, “question authority” generation raises children to follow irrational rules unquestioningly.
Perhaps a theologian could explain why the irreligious, “if it feels good, do it” generation raises children to reject God-based rules, yet to accept man-made rules that are often more restrictive but less reasonable.
Perhaps a veteran could explain why we teach kids, “I don’t care who started it – you’re both going to the principal’s office,” then are dismayed when they grow up to watch apathetically from the sidelines while criminals and terrorists roam free.
Perhaps an educator could explain why we raise our children not to be “judgmental” and to be tolerant of all forms of behavior and forgive all wrongs, yet at the same time to have “zero tolerance” for objects and actions that are often totally harmless.
Perhaps a security expert could explain why we often station armed guards in banks and jewelry stores, but rarely in schools. This says a lot about what we value the most highly.
But I wonder whether anyone can explain why so-called intelligent people punish a seven-year-old child for chewing a pop-tart into the shape of a gun because of their irrational fear of imaginary violence, but at the same time they forbid school personnel to be armed for the purpose of protecting children from real violence.
These people react to the Columbine and Sandy Hook murders not by protecting students, but by banning pop-tart “guns.” As George Orwell observed, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”
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