A teen-age Olympic gymnast in Australia has her gold medal stripped because she reportedly took two over-the-counter cold tablets. An elementary schoolgirl is suspended because she comes to school with her keys and favorite stuffed animal attached by a chain. A little boy is sent home from school because he hugged a school girl playmate.
If these were isolated events, they might be regarded as the excusable overreactions of a few administrators, officials and authorities who were trying, with the best of intentions, to faithfully implement so-called "zero tolerance" policies. Unfortunately, these are but a few examples of what is being reported from all over America. Perhaps it should be called zero tolerance madness.
What goal is being advanced here? What purpose is being served? What all-important message is being sent? The truth is that the reactions to the kinds of behaviors and situations illustrated by these three actual cases are so disproportionate to the circumstances surrounding the events in question that much of America is left shaking its head in utter disbelief.
The fundamental problem is that the reactions and consequences make no distinction between the real danger or harm associated with the behaviors. Moreover, when no notice is even taken of the age of the individuals involved, it makes a mockery of any sense of fairness and actually undermines the integrity of the policy.
Entirely lost in America's current rampage to have zero tolerance is a concern for proportionality and basic common sense. Zero tolerance has too frequently come to mean that intent, motivation and even level of harm have no relevance in determining either the dangerousness of the behavior in question or the blameworthiness of the individual. If a key chain is judged dangerous for a first-grader, then what about sharpened pencils?
Whatever happened to the principle of the punishment fitting the crime? As a result, in a zero tolerance America, every conceivable indiscretion or violation is viewed as posing an equivalent danger or risk, requiring the same level of response. The absurdity of this is especially pronounced when small children are held to the same absolute standard as older adolescents, no matter how ridiculous the standard seems.
Even the FBI, in a recently released report on school shootings, opposes simply kicking out of school all students who make threats. Minor or relatively inconsequential threats and hollow threats prompt the FBI to conclude that "all threats are not created equal" and that every threat does not represent the same danger or require the same level of response.
But what about fairness and consistency? In fact, it is a peculiar conception of fairness when the response to every conceivable violation or infraction is the same, regardless of the harm it presents and the age of the individual involved. Ironically, the FBI warns that students may come to feel unfairly or arbitrarily treated and as a result become angrier and vengeful.
It is zero tolerance itself that is a large part of the problem. Potential harm and risk, as well as the age and developmentally appropriate status of individuals must be assessed. It is fairness itself that demands such consideration.
Blind adherence to overly simplistic and counterproductive zero tolerance policies is not fair and is consistency gone amok. In this presidential season we are hearing much about common sense solutions. It is about time we applied common sense reasoning to the zero tolerance madness in which we find ourselves.
David Altschuler is a principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies who specializes in juvenile crime issues. He served on the governor's task force looking into allegations of abuse at three Maryland boot camps.
Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun