Zero Tolerance, 100 Percent Control

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In its daily editorial website, the Wall Street Journal keeps a running tabulation of the u201Czero toleranceu201D inanity that has swept public schools in this country. From the suspension of a third grade boy in Monroe, Louisiana, for drawing a picture of a soldier to the high school honor student kicked out of school because someone saw a dull table knife in her car, we are treated to accounts of u201Ceducationu201D bureaucrats running amok.

The stories are treated with a humorous tone, largely in part because the actions of school administrators seem to be so ridiculous that it is hard not to laugh. One is tempted to believe that if the WSJ or other publications run enough of these stories, then the bureaucrats will be so shamed that they will stop this insanity. However, u201Czero toleranceu201D runs much deeper than what seems to be the case, as it is just one more tool that the public school establishment employs to control people. We ignore this truth at our own peril.

School administrators and school boards defend u201Czero toleranceu201D on the grounds that they are simply trying to prevent another Columbine High School copycat massacre. However, u201Czero toleranceu201D policies would never have prevented the Columbine murders in the first place, something that both the supporters and critics of these policies have failed to point out.

Before explaining why u201Czero toleranceu201D cannot prevent the kind of outrages we saw at Columbine, we need to examine that particular case. The two perpetrators, Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris, had already skipped morning classes and entered the school building at the lunch hour. Therefore, even if they had been suspended from school for utterances or threats of violence on their web site, nothing would have prevented them from invading the school in the manner they did.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that the school authorities would have had any reason to suspend them at all. All of the planning done by the boys was in secret; the problem was not lack of school oversight, but a lack of interest by their parents in what their children were doing. Kliebold and Harris engaged in a surprise attack against unarmed teachers and students, which is why there were so many casualties.

Two teenage boys who most likely had no business being in school in the first place carried out the Columbine outrage. That is a far cry from seven-year-old boys being suspended for saying u201Cbang,u201D or kicking a child out of school for drawing a soldier. Likewise, keeping an honor student from graduating because a table knife was in her car is not how one prevents bloodshed on school grounds.

It is hard to imagine that even public- school bureaucrats are so dull and witless that they cannot figure out what is obvious to everyone else. (I do give some leeway here, since some of the dullest and most witless people I have ever known have been public-school bureaucrats. One should never underestimate their potential for ignorance and stupidity.)

If u201Czero toleranceu201D does not prevent school violence — and most likely no one believes that it does — then why do school administrators insist of having such policies? I believe there are two answers to this question, the first being that officials believe such policies might help blunt liability charges should violence occur. The second (and this is much more likely) reason is that u201Czero toleranceu201D is a way for school bureaucrats to engage in mind control.

Few things strike more fear into school bureaucrats than trial lawyers, and one cannot blame anyone for trying to keep this class of parasites at bay. However, even if a school has the most restrictive policies in the world, the way that US judges have defined liability these past few decades means that no matter what one does, if a problem occurs, the property u201Cowneru201D is at fault, period. The current legal climate actually makes such policies useless in avoiding liability.

Thus, we get to the most important reason for u201Czero toleranceu201D rules. They are a very effective way of controlling both children and, to a lesser extent, their parents. Like those in our culture who have defined deviancy downward, school bureaucrats are able to use these rules to create new categories of deviants who must be u201Ccuredu201D by the state if they are to return to decent society.

Take the youngster in Monroe, Louisiana, for example. The boy’s father is in the US Army, and the boy simply was drawing a likeness of him. While no one at the school was remotely threatened by this drawing, the fact that school officials suspended the boy and labeled him u201Cpotentially violentu201D has the effect of clouding the child with suspicion. He begins to wonder if, indeed, he is as bad as his teachers say that he is. This child, then, is a perfect candidate for the kind of indoctrination that has become famous at public schools.

No doubt, many children who have been severely punished under u201Czero toleranceu201D policies have found themselves in what are basically u201Crehabilitationu201D classes. For example, the honor student in Florida who had the table knife in her car has now been labeled as someone who might be dangerous. To repair her own record, school officials are going to insist that she receive some sort of indoctrination in order to u201Cproveu201D to them that she is not going to harm anyone.

If this whole thing seems to be something out of Franz Kafka’s u201CThe Trial,u201D it is because the same principle is at work. Kafka’s main character, who was on trial but was never made aware of his offense, ultimately sees himself as guilty. In the same way, school bureaucrats seek to make children who are of no threat to anyone suddenly think of themselves as deviant and potentially violent and to be in need of u201Ccleansingu201D by the proper authorities.

If this seems far-fetched, remember that as students ourselves, we drew guns in art class, got in fights, and made u201CI’m going to kill youu201D threats regularly. Yet, no one called the police or had us suspended. A fight may have earned us a trip to the principal’s office, but that was about the extent of it.

Those days are gone forever. Whatever excesses we may have found in public-school systems 30 years ago, they were nothing compared to the totalitarian attitudes that are found in administrators and teachers, especially those who are active in the National Education Association. Instead of being the brainchild of overzealous administrators trying to keep peace in the schools, u201Czero toleranceu201D policies must be seen in the light of the current zeitgeist of public education, that being the worship of the state. Indeed, u201Czero toleranceu201D rules do not prevent violence. They are, instead, another example of the state’s violence against decent and law-abiding people.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], is assistant professor of economics at North Greenville College in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

© 2001 LewRockwell.com

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