Zero tolerance: In loco parentis in the extreme

June 5, 2009, midnight | By Lauren Teixeira | 13 years ago

Popular disciplinary measure in need of rexamination

I am concerned because I can no longer make jokes about zero tolerance policies. For example, the other day I quipped to a friend about these policies, "At this rate, they'll strip-search you for Advil!" And then I realized it had already happened.

What was once hyperbolic fancy has, in recent years, become the stuff of reality: Take the current case of Savana Redding, who in 2003, at the age of 13, was strip-searched for prescription-strength ibuprofen which she did not have. The search was in compliance with her school's zero tolerance policy, a draconian measure in which first-time violations of school rules can result in suspension or expulsion. After six years of legal turmoil, Redding's case has made it to the Supreme Court, where in all likelihood, the justices will rule that the search was constitutional.

Another recent incident has further proved zero tolerance policies are no laughing matter. Last month, Fairfax teenager Josh Anderson committed suicide the night before a disciplinary hearing in which he likely would have been expelled from his high school for being found on campus with a small amount of marijuana. Whether or not Anderson's perception of his impending punishment caused him to take his own life, the tragedy provoked a passionate backlash. Combined with the current machinations of the Redding case, outrage against zero tolerance policies is at an all-time high.

Upon examination, zero tolerance policies are a thoroughly ridiculous concept. Implementing them punishes students automatically with little to no attention to their actual offense. At the very least, the policies are a poor reflection of the basic tenet of American justice, which seeks to make the punishment fit the crime: Shoplifters and serial killers are rarely assigned the same sentence. Zero tolerance policies, however, often fail to distinguish between drug dealers and their intended target and teenagers experimenting with marijuana. The disparity between the magnitudes of these offenses is not taken into account. By punishing people indiscriminately, zero tolerance policies are inherently unjust.

However ludicrous, the fact remains that at face value, zero tolerance policies are appealing to many American adults. It�s understandable � they are clear, decisive and seemingly effective. But according to a fascinating 2008 study by Colgate University psychologist Kevin Carlsmith, the reality of zero tolerance is far from the perception or intention of the policy. When confronted with descriptions of cases of zero tolerance enforcement like Redding�s, 88 percent of the participants who had voiced support for zero tolerance in theory reversed their position. In short, by popular opinion, zero tolerance is attractive in theory but reviled in practice.

This is not to say that parental aversion to teenage drug use has waned. Parents don�t want their children doing drugs. Understood. But zero tolerance, for all of its tough pretensions, is a truly flimsy attempt to curb teenage drug use, which given its prevalence should warrant more than a one-size-fits-all policy. Administrators need look no further than our nation�s overcrowded prisons for evidence of the ineffectiveness of the law-and-order approach to combatting drug use which has been dominant for the past twenty years. Recent trends in drug enforcement even point to an imminent legalization of marijuana. The �War on Drugs� as we knew it is coming to an end. Zero tolerance demonizes drug use in a way that seems increasingly dated � a relic from a failed campaign. A refreshingly rational step would be to take the infractions of school rules on a case-by-case basis. Certainly, disciplining on a case-by-case basis takes more administrative effort, but it is a small price to pay for justice.

A term commonly appropriated in civil cases concerning student rights is in loco parentis. Literally translated, it means �in place of a parent�� that is, when students go to school in the morning, teachers and administrators are transferred ultimate authority in governing their actions. Like a guardian, with in loco parentis teachers and administrators have the responsibility to guide as well as discipline. Zero tolerance seems the cruelest interpretation of the term.

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