"We don't go in for ... tolerance; we go in for strict truth and let the other guy be tolerant of us."
When a high school student in Arizona doodled in the margin of his test paper a few weeks ago, and the misshapen artwork resembled a rare type of gun, the novice artist received a five-day suspension from school for breaking school policy against weapons on campus. The school later reduced the suspension to three days, while maintaining that, although the student didn't bring an actual weapon to school, his artwork could have been a sign of a violent act in the future.
Remembering the horrific incidents at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Tech earlier this year, I can understand watching for signs of violent behavior as an effective tool to prevent such carnage from happening in the first place. But is the growing policy we call "zero tolerance" becoming so inclusive we're approaching a similar epidemic of intolerance?
My second "zero" illustration happened closer to home.
After living in the same house all her life and attending the same school since pre-K, a local middle school girl and her family moved into a new home and school district - in the same county - just before classes resumed this year. When I asked how she liked her new school, she said, "It's OK, but the kids are different here, and I miss my friends." I encouraged her to be patient. A couple of weeks later I received an excited call from her.
"Guess what! I'm going to a dance at my old school this Friday with all my old friends."
I was excited, too, especially about her mood change, and I awaited her after-dance report.
Alas, the report was anything but exciting. School policy states if a student doesn't attend a certain school, even a former school, said student is not allowed on campus, ever. Zero tolerance; no exceptions. A half-hour into the much anticipated reunion, school administrators and security personnel removed a frightened young lady from the dance floor, called her parents, and sent her home.
"I wasn't doing drugs; I wasn't doing anything but sitting at a table talking with my friends," she sobbed, "and I've gone to that school for almost 10 years!"
I wouldn't want to be the one making school policy today, and I don't envy those who do. But I have to question an unrelenting policy that treats all levels of behavior and the mere suspicion of wrong-doing as deserving of the same consequences. The following incident may not suggest a perfect solution, but the circumstances were similar, and the child was my own.
During the mid-'70s, after my soldier-husband received orders for Berlin, Germany, I helped our two young sons pack carry-on bags full of their favorite toys to occupy them on the long journey. All went well until we were boarding our flight from Frankfurt to Berlin when, suddenly, a German police officer detained our 7-year-old after finding a five-inch plastic squirt gun in his carry-on.
"Tell the man he can have the gun to play with," I said, hoping my lighthearted remark would comfort my child and reduce the diplomatic tension we all felt. I needn't have worried. The policeman completely understood the non-violent reason for a small child's - and his mother's - indiscretion.
"Here," he said as he walked toward me, "put this in your purse. We can't be too careful on these flights, you know." His smile told us he understood. He knew we would be more careful next time.
Perhaps both the Arizona artist and the local - and lonely - middle school girl had both broken a school law, but under these or comparable circumstances, couldn't there have been some way to minimize the harsh punishment each received? Is there no room for a sensible outcome, judging a fringe infraction by the circumstances and not by a one-size-fits-all reaction? How about: "Here, this is an important rule for the safety of all the students at our school. We won't punish you this time, but please be more careful in the future."
Someone has said that no one can boast of being totally tolerant, for then we will become intolerant of the intolerant. I wish it weren't so, but I believe I've just reached that stage.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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