Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Zero Tolerance and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Zero tolerance policies in public schools… Mandatory sentences… Three strikes laws… State-mandated standardized testing… TSA agents strip searching little old ladies in wheel chairs… the common threads in these and other similar issues may not be immediately apparent. Yet they all have at least three commonalities. First, their origin is found in the effort of some authority—be it a school board, a state legislature, the U.S. Congress, or some organized citizens’ group—to solve a problem. The problems vary. It could be the spread of drugs or weapons at school, repeat offenders getting off with a slap on the wrist, poor student performance with accompanying low graduation rates, or the need for better airport security. Second, all are designed to remove discretion from the problem-solving equation. They effectively tie the hands of teachers and school administrators, judges, parole boards, and other government employees. And third, the consequences of these policies, policies that I’m sure were well-intentioned in their conception, are often far removed from what was originally intended. 

As a result we are inundated almost daily with news reports of kindergarteners being suspended from school for bringing a toy gun on a school bus or of some shy and soft-spoken honors student being expelled for having a plastic butter knife in her brown bag lunch. We read with incredulity as a high school student is suspended for offering a Tylenol to a classmate with a headache. We shake our heads in disbelief when a twice-convicted felon gets a life sentence without parole for shoplifting a candy bar. We hear the frustration of outstanding veteran teachers who are forced to teach not for increased knowledge, but so that their students will pass a state-mandated standardized test designed by a bureaucrat in the state capitol who never darkened a classroom door. Frustrated and annoyed, we stand in a long, slow-moving security line at the airport while some self-important TSA agent examines the catheter of a frail elderly woman in a wheel chair or as some sobbing child is frisked while her helpless mother looks on in dismay. What has happened to common sense? What has become of good judgment? What are these people thinking? 

We are reaping the consequences of the loss of both trust and compassion in our society. We cried, “Get tough!” And we got tough. Tough on gang members in our schools. Tough on criminals. Tough on lazy teachers. Tough on terrorists. We were outraged by judges who let criminals go on some technicality in the law. So we got tough on technicalities. “No exceptions!” we cried. We didn’t trust public servants to serve. We didn’t trust our school administrators to administer our schools so we took on the job ourselves by imposing (or compelling them to impose) zero tolerance policies. We didn’t trust our judges to judge—to, as the very title implies, exercise judgment. So we took on the job ourselves with mandatory sentences and three-strikes laws. We didn’t trust our teachers to teach so we spelled out in fineprint legalese precisely what they must teach and what outcome we demanded. And in a state of near panic over terrorism, we rushed to cede both civil liberties and personal privacy in an effort to keep terrorists off of airplanes. Now like cattle headed into a slaughterhouse, we stand in line, barefoot, waiting our turn to be felt up or strip searched by some low level and hastily trained bureaucrat who wears a badge but who is not in fact a sworn law enforcement officer. 

When you adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to anything you end up with something that fits almost nobody well. We have attempted to deal with the poor performance of a few public officials by implementing policies that make it impossible for good people to excel. Zero tolerance makes a virtue of intolerance and too often equals zero judgment. This “no exceptions” mentality has imposed an unthinking, unfeeling, unresponsive bureaucracy on us that makes it impossible for decent people to demonstrate either human judgment or human compassion in dealing with other human beings—human beings who desperately need the benefit of both judgment and compassion.

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