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Schools' Zero-Tolerance Policies Teach Disrespect for Law

Copyright 2001 by David W. Neuendorf

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A weird drama is being played out in Michigan, as the Holt school board decides whether to expel student Jeremy Hix. A member of a Scottish bagpipe band, Jeremy proudly wore his full regalia to his high school prom: complete with kilt, sporran, and skandubh.

During the period when Scottish nationalism was being suppressed by the British, it was a serious offense for a Scot to carry a weapon with a blade longer than the width of his hand. The skandubh was the Scottish patriot's answer to the British knife control law: a dagger that was just a bit shorter than the width of the piper's hand (usually about three inches). Over the centuries this symbolic weapon became a standard part of the piper's equipment.

Michigan law provides for expulsion of students who bring weapons to school. Regardless of whether we believe that there is merit in this policy, the law does provide for some extenuating circumstances, including when "the object or instrument possessed by the pupil was not possessed by the pupil for use as a weapon." Ignoring this provision of the law, the superintendent recommended to the school board that Jeremy be expelled for wearing his skandubh. As I write this, the board has yet to decide whether to follow that perverse recommendation.

Jeremy's situation is only the latest in a growing collection of "believe it or not" incidents in America's public schools. There are zero-tolerance policies for all kinds of disfavored behavior and speech. Kids have been thrown out of school for possessing Tylenol; writing violent fictional stories; pointing a chicken bone at another student and saying "bang;" even publishing complaints about school staff on a web site not connected to the school.

What all of these incidents have in common is that they represent the most extreme imaginable interpretation of ostensibly reasonable laws or policies. A state legislature tries to protect students by passing laws against carrying weapons in school; or possessing drugs on school grounds; or making threats of violence against students or staff. School boards and administrators then institute "zero tolerance" policies based on the laws.

Zero tolerance in this context means that the rules will be applied mindlessly, with no attempt to exercise discretion. After all, they say, if we let Jeremy bring his skandubh to the prom, doesn't that mean we have to let Bill keep his 12-gauge shotgun in his locker? If we let Mary get away with possessing Tylenol, we would be telling all the other students that drugs are OK in our school.

Balderdash! Any ten year old could tell the difference between a chicken bone or a skandubh and a deadly weapon. School administrators ought to be able to make that distinction as well. The lesson that's really being taught by these policies was expressed perfectly by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist: "If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, "the law is a ass, a idiot."

Students who are trained in an environment where the law is absurd will learn not to respect the rule of law. Voters in a school district need a policy of zero tolerance toward school officials who can't tell the difference between a toy and a weapon; an analgesic and an illegal drug; a threat and a joke.