Zero Tolerance

Zero tolerance has always seemed to me to be an unproductive response b/c it’s based on fear and and a willingness to descend into irrationality in defense of stringent rules. The school principal who does not want to take the trouble to find out what is going on on his campus takes the viewpoint of the Stalinist purge: it’s not why expel a kid, it’s why not? It’s just easier rather than face the wrath of teachers, parents, board members, community “leaders” who love to attack. As long as you expel kids whose parents are powerless, you are safe.
We see the same thing with gun control: we must not question a man’s right to level a howitzer placed in his front yard at his neighbor’s front door b/c that could lead to confiscation of all guns in the country. We must expel any girl who gets pregnant so that we can say we have no teen pregnancy in our school. As counterfactual as that is, it does allay the fear that some nut bucket will declare the school a cesspool of debauchery for having a pregnant girl attend.
Our politics are rife with this sort of zero tolerance. We can’t permit a fertilized egg to be scraped off a uterine wall b/c that will lead to 3 month old babies being hacked to death with machetes in their cribs. We can’t stop cigarette companies from targeting minors b/c that will lead to books being censored. We must not allow writers to insert swear words into their books’ dialogues b/c that will lead to swearing on T.V. (oh yeah, that’s right, it already has).
IOW, it’s a slippery slope. Let’s concretize that analogy: if you have a slippery slope but you need to climb it, what is the solution? Is it to just stay off the slope and not accomplish your mission? Is it to dash up the slope with elan only to slide down and break your crown? Or is it to prepare yourself and/or the slope for a successful ascent? That is the hard part: the work necessary to prevent catastrophe even while risking it; the work necessary to set up the situation for success. In a school: train your faculty, educate your students in all aspects of life, involve parents in the school’s operation, make the school a mover and shaker in the community, and tie in to larger state and national organizations that can support the school. That’s work.
Once you set the situation up, morality, industriousness, adherence to the law, and even learning all can occur. In some ways, our schools have benefitted from a fertile terrain, like when people in some parts of the country can throw seeds onto the ground and know they will sprout, the soil and climate are so rich. The fifties gave us growth, an upward path, and self-confidence, at least for White people; once conditions leveled off and we couldn’t coast anymore, it got tough. That’s where zero tolerance came in: we no longer wanted to deal with the ragged subtleties of neglected communities with neglected children, with rising expectations, with an economy requiring skills schools had not previously taught, and teachers unprepared by universities for teaching in the contemporary classroom.
The response has been zero tolerance or something like it, with NCLB the prime example: test everyone and flunk any kid and any school that doesn’t measure up. If we expel enough kids and shame enough schools, we’ll get what we want: excellence without paying for it. Now they’ve “doubled down”, to use the new buzz word: they are shaming individual teachers.

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