»  National Review

May 28th, 2001

  The Problem with 'Zero'


You know the stories. They have been cropping up in everyday conversation among all classes and conditions of Americans for four or five years now.

A Pittsburgh Kindergartner was disciplined in 1999 because his Halloween firefighter costume included a plastic axe.
A 10-year-old girl at McElwain Elementary in Thornton, Colo. repeatedly asked a certain boy on the playground if he liked her. The boy complained to a teacher. School administrators suspended the girl, citing the school's "zero tolerance" guidelines for sexual harassment.
In Cobb County, Ga., a sixth-grader was suspended last year because the 10-inch key chain on her Tweety Bird wallet was considered a weapon in violation of the school's "zero tolerance" policy.
In November 1997, a Colorado Springs school district suspended 6-year-old Seamus Morris under the school's zero-tolerance drug policy. The drug? Lemon drops.
Two 10-year-old boys in Arlington, Va. put soapy water in a teacher's drink. They were suspended and ultimately charged with a felony.
T.J. West, aged 13, drew a picture of a Confederate flag on a scrap of paper. His school in Derby, Kan., had listed the flag as a "hate" symbol, so West was suspended for racial harassment and intimidation. This one went to federal court. The boy lost, took his case to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, lost again and took it to the U.S. Supreme Court, who refused to hear it.

It would be comforting to think that all this "zero tolerance" insanity is driven by dimwitted administrators and avaricious lawyers. No doubt some of it is, but in at least one recent case in New York City, zero tolerance has been enforced by the parents. A 10-year-old boy at a Brooklyn public school was taunted for being overweight and Jewish. At last he threatened to bring his Dad's gun to school. The boy was transferred to a different school and charged with juvenile harassment. When parents at his new school got wind of the incident, hundreds of them pulled their kids from classes in protest. The boy's father did indeed have a handgun — legally owned and registered, kept in a combination-lock safe bolted to the floor. Police took the gun away. The boy is now being home-schooled at taxpayer expense.

A columnist at the New York Post ran an indignant piece about this incident — indignant, that is, at the parents, administrators and police who had wrecked the boy's education over such a triviality. The Post subsequently published three letters about that column, all supporting the expulsion of the boy. (I checked with the Post: they had had no letters supporting the columnist.) One expressed the general sentiment:

If I found a boy was transferred to my son's school because he had made threats at his previous school, I too would not want that boy attending my kid's school. It does not matter if the parents have reassured everyone that the gun is supposedly "locked up."

For some insight into a professional educator's point of view I spoke to the principal of my own children's elementary school. Suppose, I put it to him, my son were to say, in the course of a schoolyard dispute: "I'll get my Dad's gun and shoot you." Would I then be facing the arrest of my son and the seizure of my property? The Principal laughed. "Certainly not. We all know each other here. I know your kids, I know you. If necessary I'd call you in for a chat. Stuff like that happens in big schools where kids are anonymous and staff turnover is high. They should be dealt with informally. But you can only do that when the informal relationships have been built up."

No doubt that is much easier to say when you are principal of an elementary school rather than a high school. My local high school Principal would not talk about zero tolerance to me. He handed me off to the district Superintendent of Schools, a sensible man who said he thought these policies were becoming less popular, and that he personally only supported absolute zero tolerance in matters of gang membership, a growing problem even in quiet suburban communities like ours. If it is true that zero tolerance is beginning to decline, that is good news. No human institution can be run by the inflexible application of bureaucratic rules, without any regard for individual cases or any attempt on the part of those in authority to apply thoughtful judgment to situations. Why would anybody think so?

Popular support for zero tolerance laws and rules is in large part a reaction to the follies of our liberal elites. Why do citizens want rigid, mandatory, bureaucratic rules for dealing with transgressions? For the same reason we want three-strike laws and capital punishment: because we have learned that if we rely on soft-headed ideological judges, parole boards and school administators to do the right thing, we shall be disappointed. The results delivered by zero tolerance rules may sometimes be wacky: the results delivered when our liberal elites are left free to exercise their powers of judgment are positively dangerous. Zero tolerance is one more response to the moral crisis of our time: to the collapse of authority, to the turning away from customary and traditional practices and beliefs, to moral relativism and its tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner attitude to crime — to all the furrowed-brow, equivocating, guilt-addled, apologetic dross of modern liberalism.

This being America, there is also the matter of race, with all the associated rancor and delusions. Zero tolerance policies in schools came about partly because the schools faced lawsuits charging that principals disciplined students unequally based on race and other factors. In this regard, results have been dismally predictable. By the late 1990s, with zero tolerance well entrenched in schools nationwide, complaints were being heard that these boilerplate, inflexible policies also led to discrimination! By 1997 the nation's schools were blanketed with zero-tolerance policies; yet in the 1997-98 academic year, of the roughly 87,000 students expelled from their schools, about 31 per cent were black, though blacks make up only 17 per cent of enrollment. Tony Arasi, assistant schools superintendant in Cobb County, Georgia, made this point in commenting on the Tweety Bird case: "Those people saying zero tolerance leads to unfairness … may want to go back 10 or 15 years to before most districts had zero tolerance. They were saying there was unfairness then. It's come full circle."

The paradox is that zero tolerance of threats, drugs, weapons and "sexual harassment" coexists with one hundred per cent tolerance of "lifestyles" that most emphatically would not have been tolerated 30 years ago, and which very large numbers of Americans still find offensive. Following the April 1999 Columbine school shootings in Littleton, Colo., it emerged that students at the school had worn Nazi emblems and given Hitler salutes to each other in the hallways, without any disciplinary sanction. (Colorado was, by the way, a leader in zero tolerance school policies long before the Columbine massacre.) And of course, every kind of sexual freakishness is now a "lifestyle choice" which adolescents are perfectly free to make without interference from authority. "Gay student societies" are now tolerated in hundreds of high schools, in spite of the fact that 43 per cent of Americans, polled by Gallup in 1999, do not even think homosexual acts ought to be legal. The abdication of authority is, in fact, the common feature underlying both zero tolerance and total tolerance. On the one hand, there is the determination to avoid exercising any kind of rational judgment about petty infractions of discipline, lest one's judment betray one into "discrimination," or — much worse — fail to detect the very occasional adolescent psychopath. On the other hand, there is the unwillingness to be "judgmental" about any expressions of individual belief or taste — except those derived from organized Christianity.

And those school shootings — Pearl, Miss. and Paducah, Ky. in 1997, Jonesboro, Ark., Edenboro, Pa. and Springfield, Ore. in 1998, Littleton, Colo. in 1999, Santee, Ca. this March — are engraved on the minds of every school administrator in the country, and of most parents too. The Santee shooting was on a Monday, and the 15-year-old boy who did it spent all weekend telling friends about his intention. Nobody took him seriously. You see the point of those Brooklyn parents pulling their kids from school. It is of very little use to say to these parents that a child's chance of being shot dead in school is around one in a million, which is to say about one-third his risk of being struck by lightning. Nor does it help to point out that schools have never been perfectly safe from violence, and that the idea of taking a gun to your teachers and classmates did not emerge suddenly into the world in 1997. The worst school massacre in the U.S.A. actually occurred in 1927, and the original shoot-up-the-school movie was Lindsay Anderson's If, which was released in 1969 (and was inspired by Jean Vigo's 1933 movie Zero for Conduct).

The bureaucratic inflexibility of zero tolerance policies is one symptom of a more general problem our hedonistic, atomized society faces. To get some perspective, it may help to glance back for a moment across a couple of thousand years of time and ten thousand miles of space.

The two most potent philosophies of statecraft in ancient China were Confucianism and Legalism. Confucians believed that human beings are fundamentally good, and that society can be regulated by internalized moral rules. Good manners, clear conscience, moral leadership and a respect for customary ways of doing things — concepts wrapped up in the word li — would guarantee social order, according to the Confucians. Legalists believed that human selfishness was too strong a force to be contained by anything but the fear of strict laws and savage punishments, rigorously and impartially applied. Only the firm, inflexible application of written law, fa, would keep society stable.

Any actual society, of course, needs some measure of both li and fa. Some of us are beyond the reach of moral precepts and can only be held back from evil by the threat of punishment. There are not many of this kind, though, as Robert Burns pointed out to his young friend:

I'll no say, men are villains a':
The real, harden'd wicked,
Wha hae nae check but human law,
Are to a few restricked …

Most of us can be kept on the straight and narrow by some basic moral training in childhood, reinforced by the example of virtuous men and women in positions of authority and by the reassurance offered by traditional observances — that is, by good manners.

What the zero tolerance follies tell us is that we have lost the balance between li and fa. We have slipped into Legalism, the application of inflexible, pettifogging punitive codes to all social infractions without judgment or wise consideration. To restore the balance we need some wider appreciation of Confucius's insight — which has been shared by all great ethical and religious teachers — that human beings are, in the main, decent enough to respond to moral training and example, when those set in authority over them have the courage and conviction to supply those things. With a little more li in our lives we should be less oppressed by fa. How we get from here to there is, of course, another question.