“Zero Tolerance” Makes Zero Sense

“Zero Tolerance.” Here we go again.

It’s one of those buzz phrases that, in the good name of exhorting something positive, gives buzz phrases an especially bad name.

Not unlike “Just Say No” or “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” such modern shibboleths materialize in response to serious — but complex — societal concerns, such as weapons in schools, the allure of drugs or the threat of career criminals. They eschew equivocation and restore a sense of control. Reminders to us all that if only we show some fortitude, we can take back our schools, our kids, our streets. If not our rhetoric.

The policy-shorthand message is simplistic and not at all subliminal: Enough of the hand wringing and excuse mongering; ditto for social science and psychobabble. “Just Do It,” so to speak.

Which brings us to the latest installment of “zero tolerance” here in Hillsborough County. A sixth grader at a Brandon middle school has been suspended for violating the county’s “zero tolerance” policy on weapons possession in school. Such policies are not rare.

Who, after all, would want to be soft on weapons in school? Especially after Paducah, KY, Jonesboro, AK, and Lake Worth, FL. This is a different world than the one we thought we knew. Columbine meets al-Qaida. Automatic weapons or box cutters. Can’t be too careful.

But we can be too arbitrary. And too over-reactive.

That Brandon middle schooler didn’t pack heat with his lunch. He brought his mom’s calculator. It so happened, however, that it was one of those calculators that can do more than just calculate. Perhaps it was a Swiss Army Calculator; it came equipped with some gadgetry; i.e., a magnifying glass, a screwdriver and a 2-inch knife blade.

Strike up the contraband.

This is a weapon. Whether he brandished it or not. Whether he knew it had all these features or not. He had it; he dropped it; a blade popped out; and he was suspended — it’s automatic — for 10 days. He was also arrested and taken to juvenile detention.

While he’s certainly learned to leave his mom’s fancy calculator at home, he won’t learn any other lessons for at least a fortnight. The severity of the offense precludes him from making up the work. Conceivably, he could be expelled or sent to an alternative school, where he’d likely be the only one in on a calculator rap. Go figure.

“It’s a shame, but the way things have been in our society,” said sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Massaro to a Tampa Tribune reporter. “The bottom line is he had a weapon,” underscored Massaro, the middle school’s resource deputy.

Added Hillsborough County School District spokesman Mark Hart: “That’s what zero tolerance means.”

And he’s right. Even when the policy is wrong. It’s what’s wrong with any zero tolerance policy. They are well intentioned and a serious response to a serious problem. But they are invariably overly broad and inflexible and typically nail the wrong people in the name of getting tough with those who are societal threats.

The bottom line is that this middle school student had a calculator that could have been used as a weapon. The letter of the law addresses that.

The spirit, however, says to put this into a common sense context. What kind of “weapon” are we talking about and what was the kid doing with it? Moreover, what kind of kid is this sixth grader? And what’s to be gained by arresting him and punishing him academically?

There’s no lack of questions, including why cutting edge calculators have to be so literal.

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