Zero tolerance usually means zero common sense

I keep finding these stories.

I guess that in a nation this size, you have to expect absurdity every now and then but, dammitall, it shouldn’t be this easy.

What I’m talking about is the fallout from the “zero tolerance” (see: zero thought) policies that too many (i.e., more than none) schools have adopted.

I’m not a fan of these policies. That’s because I think that they’re mostly an easy way out for all of the “I’m just following the rules” types out there who, whenever they encounter a situation calling for leadership, judgment and backbone, can now say “zero tolerance” and head for the hills.

The latest stories I’ve come across involve two kids. The first was a 14-year-old girl who was about to miss her school bus. She ran out of her house while making a sandwich. When she finished making the sandwich, she stuffed the butter knife she’d been using into her schoolbag and later put it into her locker at school.

She forgot that it was there until a few weeks later when it fell out of the locker and a teacher saw it.

Teacher tells principal. Young lady gets suspended and, later, expelled.

Zero tolerance, you see. Had to be done. Hands tied and all that. Lets everyone know, though, that we mean business.

And are a bunch of nitwits to boot.

The second incident involved an eighth grade boy who’d finished a science assignment early and was doodling in the margins of his paper. One of his doodles resembled a laser gun. This, according to school officials, constituted a “threat” and the young man was suspended for five days.

Good grief. Let’s see if I have this right.

Boy finishes assignment. Boy gets fidgety. Note: Boys do that a lot. It’s hard-wired into their genes. Before “being fidgety” became a disorder, a tough teacher glaring in their general direction generally controlled it.

Anyway, boy draws a laser gun.

Yep. No doubt about it. That’s a threat.

Unfortunately, the guards at the gulag missed locking the place down, calling in the SWAT teams and getting the governor on the horn. Where would we be if the kid had doodled a nuclear bomb?

Look, rules that say no guns, knives or drugs on campus are fine. The problem these days is in the sometimes mindless application of those rules. Under zero tolerance policies, good kids all too often get shafted for doing something that could’ve been sorted out in about the time it takes to read this piece.

As regards the two stories I’ve mentioned, here’s what would’ve happened not all that long ago.

Teacher: “Molly (fictitious name), did I just see a knife fall out of your locker?”

Molly: “Ohmigosh. I was in such a rush leaving the house the other day that I totally forgot I had it.”

Teacher: “You know the rules about knives in school?”

Molly (who’s never been a problem to anyone): “Yes ma’am. Am I going to get in trouble?”

Teacher: “Not if you hand it over and I never see you with one again.”

Or, in the case of our supposedly incipient mad gunman:

Principal: “Jimmy (again, fictitious name), what the hell is this doodle?”

Jimmy: ” Uhh, a laser?”

Principal: “Do tell. Do you know what kind of hysteria this can cause these days?”

Jimmy: “Uhh, yeah.”

Pricipal: “Then why the hell did you do it?”

Jimmy: “Uhh, I was bored. Am I in trouble?”

Principal: “No, but there are about 20 blackboards on the third floor that need cleaning. Guess who gets to do that?”

Jimmy: “Uhhh, me?”

Principal” “Right. You going to draw any more guns?”

Jimmy: “Uhh, no.”

Principal: “Good.”

Zero tolerance.

We don’t need it.

Because what it actually teaches kids is that there’s no room for judgment. It teaches them that if they run afoul of the rules — even inadvertently — their punishment can be out of all proportion to their offense. Further, to get their “minds right,” they might even be slapped into counseling so fast that it would make them wonder if there really was something wrong with them. And that’s not what kids should be learning about rules and their application.

But if we’re going to go ahead and put this stuff in place, then we ought to tell both the parents and the kids in these schools to stop looking for sanity and common sense.

They’ve both left the building.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. His e-mail address is

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