Zero-tolerance, zero clarity
Last week, I wrote about the battle between local and federal control over schools when it comes to reform. Another related issue recently in the limelight has been the rise of zero-tolerance weapon policies in schools and their unintended consequences. After the rash of school shootings in the late 1990s, many school districts adopted zero-tolerance policies. Irrespective of intent, the possession of weapons such as knives and guns spelled expulsion or suspension.
Today’s New York Times tells the story of Zachary Christie. Only six years old, he brought a “3-in-one” fork, knife, and spoon silverware set used for camping to school. Now he faces a disciplinary hearing that could result in a 45 day suspension.
The current debate has focused on the practical consequences of zero-tolerance policies. At a time when school violence has dropped across the board, expulsions and suspensions are way up all over the country–leading many to suggest that the most at-risk students are put at even greater risk as they exit the system. African-American students have been hit especially hard.
Whether or not they work, are zero-tolerance policies ethical?
The first problem with zero-tolerance weapon policies is that they do away with a central tenant of our criminal judicial system: mens rea. The term, which translates literally to “guilty mind,” is how the legal system describes criminal intent. Causing unintentional harm is still punishable, but not to the same extent as crime intentionally calibrated to hurt others.
By ignoring mens rea, zero-tolerance policies treat school students more harshly than adult criminals. This is especially problematic when we take into account the fact that children — especially six-year-olds – are still in the process of developing an ability to make sound judgments about safety, harm, right and wrong.
As Christie’s case demonstrates, zero-tolerance policies also commit a fundamental reasoning error: they attempt to solve a vague problem with a definitive solution.
A 3-in-one camping cutlery set is not a weapon in the same way a gun or a switchblade is a weapon. It has not been designed to do harm and it is not marketed and sold as a vehicle for wrongdoing. It can be used as a weapon, just as the aluminum baseball bats children bring to school during warm months can be used to commit grievous harm.
The question of when the introduction of even a benign object creates the potential for injury or harm in the classroom is important. It’s also extremely difficult. Zero-tolerance policies sidestep that tough question through a definitive rule.
Tough moral questions are made easier when you avoid them altogether. But that’s not a way to provide sound answers.