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Thursday, January 20, 2000
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Volume 65, Issue 77

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Zero tolerance policies a ‘Catch 00'

Steve Forsberg

In an attempt to solve a difficult problem, bureaucracies will often come up with "buzzwords," simple sound bites that they pretend are the needed solution. These words are then often used like magical incantations to ward off accountability and criticism. Among the most pernicious of buzzwords currently in favor is "zero tolerance."

Nowhere is zero tolerance more in favor than in school systems. In response to a number of well-publicized incidents, schools across the nation have been rushing to implement zero tolerance policies that will supposedly make educational institutions safe places.

Zero tolerance may best be viewed as an attempt by educators and administrators to duck the responsibilities of their posts.

Most people wish that they were the boss. After all, if they were in charge, then all the right decisions would be made. Unfortunately, however, people who do get elevated to top positions often find that no matter what decision they make they are stuck in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Given the controversies around so many educational issues these days, school administrators often feel like clay pigeons.

For example, suppose a student gets caught threatening another student with a six-inch switchblade, and the principal has the student suspended. Later, another student inadvertently shows up with a steak knife in his or her lunch bag, is turned in to the teacher, and the principal decides a verbal reprimand will do.

While these decisions may sound like "common sense" to many people, they will undoubtedly haunt the principal. The parents of the suspended student will shout that there is unequal treatment. Lord help the principal if the students are of different races or religions, because charges of discrimination will no doubt be raised. And finally, some parents, fueled by reruns of the Columbine shootings, will argue that all students who bring "weapons" to school should be expelled.

This last suggestion catches the ear of the principal. Keeping weapons out of schools certainly sounds like good policy, and "zero tolerance" has such a nice ring to it. Besides, if there is a mandatory zero tolerance policy, then the principal will no longer be burdened with making difficult decisions. Instead, he or she will simply toss out all the students regardless of the details of their case and, when criticized, will respond, "I have no choice. We have a zero tolerance policy."

The whole point in demanding high qualifications for such school administrators is that they need to make difficult decisions. Allowing them to bail out of hard cases with a cop-out policy is a waste of money. If school officials aren't going to bother looking into the details of rule infractions, then we might as well replace them with a minimum-wage employee armed with a rubber stamp.

Of course, it is usually a school board (at the urging of the principal) that has mandated zero tolerance policies. If some particular case seems like an outrage, the principal can say, "My hands are tied by the general policy," while the school board can lament, "We deal only in general policy, not the details of individual cases."

This is a "Catch Zero-Zero" that is becoming all too familiar. A zero tolerance policy almost certainly ensures that sooner or later there will be an injustice done -- but at least there will be no one to blame.

Of course, zero tolerance is also increasingly heard in our courts. By mandating harsh minimum punishments as a policy, Congress robs judges of their traditional role: taking into account the circumstances of a case when sentencing crimes. It is no longer the judge's fault when an injustice arises; rather, the blame is apportioned to an impersonal Congress. Which is, of course, why it should have left some discretion to the judge in the first place.

Forsberg, a senior history major, 
can be reached at sjforsbe@bayou.uh.edu.

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