Life Sentences, Day 141: Zero Tolerance

February 18th, 2011

What does “zero tolerance” really mean?

As long as we’re talking about schools, I thought we might talk about one of today’s true scourges: zero tolerance.

In the past year, children have been suspended from various schools for:

Bringing a squirt gun to school.

Making a drawing of a squirt gun in school.  (The cartoon above refers to a real case.)

Being found in possession of a butter knife.

Having four Midol in a backpack to alleviate cramps.

Bringing interesting rocks to school to share with the class as part of a geology lesson.

And, to take the butter knife thing a bit further, Amber Dauge, a tenth-grader in Charleston, South Carolina, was EXPELLED when she was caught using a butter knife to, well, spread butter on bread.  Her explanation — that the school’s plastic knives broke because the butter was too hard — was rejected as transparently self-serving, and she was expelled.  Not suspended, expelled.

In Longmont, Colorado, a fifth-grader named Shannon Cosiet discovered that her mother had put a table knife in her backpack to cut an apple with.  She went to the vice-principal to turn it in.  She was expelled.  Not praised for being honest, not reprimanded, not suspended.  Expelled.

I’m picking on the schools because we’ve been talking about them.  But virtually once a week we read about some act of maniacal stupidity committed by the minimum-wage/maximum-power boys and girls of the TSA.  A woman was recently thrown off a flight because she had bought a toy solder for her son, and it was holding a rifle.  The soldier was four inches high, the rifle was less than in inch long, it was made of solid plastic, and it couldn’t be removed from the soldier’s shoulder. So even if the woman had wanted to use a three-quarters-of-an-inch-long, solid plastic rifle to menace the stewardess or stir her martini, she couldn’t have.

Denied boarding.  Zero tolerance.

Zero tolerance is a vile precept, not only because it results in actions that defy analysis, but also because it’s based in a fundamental assumption that the people who have been assigned to enforce the rules are all idiots.  They’re incapable of making a judgment call. Left to their own devices, a school official might decide that it’s okay for a third-grader to possess a hypodermic, a bag of powder, and a bent spoon, and a TSA enforcer might decide that the Middle Eastern man with C-4 strapped to his body has kind eyes and allow him on the plane.

Because their superiors have no faith in their intelligence and — what was that term people used to use?  Oh, right, common sense  — these people are deprived of the right to exercise judgment.  So they ignore the evidence of their eyes and intellect and  press hard on someone’s colostomy bag and/or urine receptacle (I’m not making this up) and the passenger, humiliated and stinking, is finally allowed to board the plane.  Another blow for freedom and National Security.

So what this means is that the people we’re entrusting to educate our kids and keep the country safe from terrorism are too dumb to know that you can’t shoot someone with a tiny plastic rifle and that Midol is not a controlled substance.

Well, then, why don’t we get some people who aren’t that dumb?  Or — here’s a sweeping concept – once we’ve decided someone is qualified for a job, why not let him or her actually do it?

Even more revolutionary.  Let’s declare a fifteen-year moratorium on admitting any more lawyers to the bar, anywhere in the country.  Ultimately, this is a lawyer issue. As this society has come to the widespread realization that the best way to get rich is to sue someone, every misstep, however seemingly minor, has become a handhold for a trillion-dollar lawsuit.  We need fewer lawyers to take them on and fewer judges to put them on the docket.  Maybe we need zero tolerance for any lawyer who repeatedly takes on what used to be called baseless or frivolous lawsuits.

That’s a use of zero tolerance I could support.

19 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 141: Zero Tolerance”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    You really can’t have it both ways–who is going to fight this sort of thing if there aren’t any lawyers?

  2. Trevel Says:

    I suggest a zero-tolerance policy against teachers and principles.

    After making a decision like those listed above, they should be barred from working in the education industry ever again.

  3. Beth Says:

    First the teachers, now the lawyers.

    Isn’t there a problem here with generalizations?

    Most teachers do their best everyday, spend hours attempting to come up with something that might capture interest and imagination, and buy necessities for the classroom like paper, pencils, chalk, etc. with their own money because the amount allocated for each teacher doesn’t cover supplies beyond the end of September. But they are still vilified. (And they do not get paid for not working during the summer; they opt to be paid 26 weeks rather than 22).

    My daughter is a lawyer, one of those people everyone wants to hate. She makes enough money to keep her head above water. She does not work for a firm in which attorneys have to submit minimum numbers of billable hours. So she gets a salary. She loves the work she does but she knows she will never work for one firm throughout her professional life. Are you aware that legal services are outsourced? The research done on your case may well have been done in India. Young lawyers, like young doctors, do not have large salaries in their futures.

    She decided to be a lawyer because she thought she should do something worthwhile with her life. And, despite the constant comments that label her as a crook, a thief, and a liar, she has never thought of getting a job at Whole Foods where she might get some respect.

    Your fortunate that in your varied career, having had to sign a few contacts over the years, that you have never needed a lawyer to represent you.

    If you have used the services of an attorney, then the rant is a bit disingenuous. Everybody hates lawyers until they need one.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Ohmigod, I’ve offended everyone except Trevel, and he doesn’t think I’ve gone far enough.

    Okay, to respond in order.

    Bonnie, I knew that would bring you out swinging. I am not SERIOUSLY proposing that we stop admitting lawyers to the bar for fifteen years. I do wish, however, that the profession would do something to self-regulate its members who get rich by specializing in taking idiot lawsuits on a contingency basis and winning idiot rulings that contribute to the zero-tolerance atmosphere. You know as well as I do that there are more than a few lawyers are little better than ambulance chasers who will pursue basically any case, even the most outrageous, if it might put them in a position to pick up a fat percentage of a big settlement. Just as there are judges who will agree to hear any suit, even the ones brought by the “victims” who drank the lemon-scented dishwashing detergent. Which, by the way, was labeled, “For the cleanest dishes EVER.”

    Beth, I’m actually disappointed in your reaction. I never condemned teachers out of hand. I went far out of my way to put into perspective the problems teachers face and the unrealistic expectations we impose on them. I said, not once but twice, that teachers are 90% of what’s right with American public education. I’d say it all again now, but I don’t think it would make any difference. And I’m also a little bit surprised that you took the last paragraph of the zero-tolerance rant so seriously. It’s so transparently impossible that I thought people would see it immediately for what it was, which was blowing smoke. On the other hand, I meant every word I said about zero tolerance as being an official manifestation of distrust of the people who are supposed to be making judgment calls (and that certainly includes teachers) and I also meant what I said about the failure of the teachers’ unions to take on the things that really make teaching an almost impossible profession, choosing instead to declare teachers as a whole professionally sacrosanct and individually untouchable.

    One more time: I think teachers are responsible for 90% of what’s right with the American public education system. That means the rest of the world gets to divide up ten percent of the credit.

  5. Bonnie Says:

    It’s a wonder anyone still wants to be a teacher, between the crummy pay and the lack of respect (not to mention endangering your physical safety) But I think you left out something very important, which is that as a culture we don’t value intellect or logical reasoning. Heck, we like presidents who seem to be idiots. It doesn’t make us feel so threatened.

    As far as the lawyers, it’s easy to blame them, but they don’t make the law. If they are lucky, they come up with a new way to interpret it that can force the law to change. See Loving v Virginia or its California equivalent, Perez v Sharp (finding ban on interracial marriage unconstitutional). Tort liability is a complex mixture of black letter law, public policy, insurance and other coroproate lobbying, and specific facts and interpretation of what they mean (including the credibility of the witnesses testifying to them), a job shared by a both judge and jury. It’s easy to target the attorneys when there is an outcome that appears at least from the outside to be absurd or unfair, but the truth is, as is often the case, complex, and the whole system of civil and criminal justice we utilize is designed to continually test the “edges.”

    And just because some bureaucratic pinhead decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater doesn’t mean it was a reasoned legal decision.

    But you knew that.

  6. micael hallinan Says:

    Everett wouldn’t categorically condemn lawyers and teachers. Your bro’ Micael P.S.Rob agrees

  7. Dana King Says:

    I agree; generalizations are dangerous. That’s where lawyers get an unfair rap, because 95% give the rest a bad name.

  8. Suzanna Says:

    Offend away.

    Morgan’s just glad he isn’t the lone target of my long winded rants.

    I love the controversy. Please don’t stop sticking your neck out here and I promise I won’t withhold my hurling proverbial bricks, k?

  9. Beth Says:

    Tim,people who post opinions on any forum that is available to the public cannot, in this climate, afford to be facetious or a bomb tosser.

    Seventy percent of Republicans who say they will vote in the primaries believe that Obama was born in Kenya and he is a Muslim. I saw an interview George Stephanopoulos had with Michelle Bachman in which he asked her repeatedly to say that she knows that the president was born in the US and is a Christian. She refused, danced around the issue. Fox News is the sole source of information for most of the people in this country. They have admitted that they are not a news organization and they are the publicity arm of the Republican party.People don’t hear that. There was an article in an online magazine that was entitled, “Don’t These People Have Grandparents?” The author was saying his grandparents listen to Fox all day, an organization that convinces listeners they are living in the end times.

    I know people who would agree with you that there should be no new lawyers and the ones in practice now should just be allowed to die off. I am related to some of these people, God help me. I have two brothers and a sister who have completely forgotten who they are.

    Every parent whose child did not get into the one of the top twenty five colleges in the country blames the teacher. It has to be someone’s fault and it can’t be the fault of their child because then it would be the fault of the parents.

    One of the Boston newspapers had an article today about a group of men who are calling themselves the Patriots (creative). According to their leadership, women and children are going to be stolen and hidden away so that the government can control the men. Did anyone believe that? Of course, it was in the paper.

    The problem with words is that no one has any control over how they are heard.

    Back to teachers – the greatest difficulty teachers have is dealing with parents who will not see that their darlings just might not be quite the people they think they are. Two months into my first year teaching, I swore that I would never say, “My child would never do that.”

  10. EverettK Says:

    Micael: Naw, I’m married to a teacher, and my cousin is a lawyer. So I know some of them are decent folks. Just like some artists…

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Okay, I hear you.

    No more facetious content. That’s the main problem with the world anyway. No one takes it seriously enough.

    In fact, no more content at all. Tomorrow’s post will set the new tone.

  12. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Aw, Tim, say it isn’t so. These are really hot button issues, and, unfortunately, the good teachers and lawyers get lost in the process. I have known some good ones in both professions, and some of my favorite people are teachers and lawyers. But I tend to gravitate toward the good guys, and their frustration with poor teachers, entitled parents, and unreasonable clients is huge. I do think there are many folks who out for the brass ring who don’t want to work for it; and I agree with the posts that mourn the ignorance and ugliness that is saturating our culture. Many of those people do not expect their children to work for grades. I work with people whose ex-spouses fight with attorneys when they are advised to settle. Fortunately, there are a few of us left with ethics and integrity. Peace, please.

  13. micael hallinan Says:

    I agree with Suzanna; offend away. I,m tired of luke warm opinions..Any strong statement is bound to offend someone. Often political correctness is a self enforced form of censorship. Stir the pot Tim. Look at all the responses.

  14. Debbi Says:

    I know I’m weighing in a bit late on this, but I just wanted to add a few more thoughts. I’m trying to remember if I already posted this link. If not, in defense of the teachers, I offer this:

    Both of my in-laws were teachers who worked VERY hard after hours, grading papers, creating lesson plans and so on.

    As for the lawyers … ahem! … we’re really not ALL complete douches … honest …

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    No, no, no. I’ve learned my lesson.

    No more facetiousness. No more controversy.

    A new day in the life of this blog will dawn tomorrow. The keyword will be unimpeachable. No issues, no arguments, no hurt feelings, no more of me apparently failing to communicate the fact that I do not dislike teachers and, as I’ve now said two — no, three times, I think they’re responsible of 90% of everything that’s right about American public education. I just don’t think they should have uniquely protected status that protects the minority among them who are useless, uninspiring, and ineffective. That’s not fair to the good teachers.

    None of that was facetious, but that’s the last you’ll hear of it. No more issues. Tomorrow we begin again.

  16. Laren Bright Says:

    You’re being facetious, right?

  17. Larissa Says:

    I certainly hope so. Part of the beauty of having a blog is that you can decide the content-hurt feelings usually stem from an overly sensitive ego…and, before I go and piss anyone off, I’m not even coming close to referring to anyone who posts here.

    While I don’t always agree with some of the comments that get thrown up here, I come back to read them anyway-sometimes because you get to see what gets people fired up and thinking and using English the way it was supposed to be used-to express a coherent, valid and well thought out argument.

    Anyway-that’s it. I’m going to go join the future now to see what’s actually happened.

    But there’s my retroactive two cents.


  18. Jaden Says:

    Maybe I’m just weird, but I didn’t read this as a rant against teachers or even lawyers. I thought the last part (about the lawyers) was about a specific sub-group of lawyers that will sue anyone for anything, anytime, regardless of how stupid it is. The rest, I thought was about how “zero tolerance” policies cause as much or more harm as they prevent.

    Take the sexual harassment laws. Anyone can make a complaint, even when the person accused has clearly done NOTHING wrong and never intended anything sexual. But the law is written in such a way that the “victim’s” perception of inappropriateness trumps the actual actions of the accused. This sort of thing trivializes the experiences of people who really ARE exploited and harassed.

    When we treat a butter knife with the same horror as we would treat a machine gun, we have a serious problem.

    Keep up the good work, Tim.

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Jaden, Riss, Laren — Well, this is many days (and a long, emotional journey) later, and as you’ve seen by now, the blog has changed radically and, I dare say, for the better.

    I appreciate the support from all three of you and I agree that the intent of the original post wasn’t to demonize any professions. But these days, one can’t be too careful. Especially where teachers are concerned because, as I might have written before my enlightenment, millions of wonderful teachers who deserve all the support we can give them are represented by a small number of zealots who (a) don’t want to lose their jobs, (b) enjoy the exercise of power, and (c) want to create the only vocation in America that’s completely free from performance evaluation. Even the blowhards we elect to office are submitted to job evaluation when election time rolls around.

    But I wouldn’t write that now. I know better.

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