Kids get in trouble at school every day. Nothing unusual there.
Getting suspended from school used to be the worst punishment that a kid could get. It was the last resort, reserved for kids who picked fights and were serious offenders.
Today, on a pretty regular basis, you can read stories about a new kind of elementary school hooligan.
Every week or two, there’s a new story of a kid who doesn’t actually bring a weapon to school, or make actual threats toward others, or actually hurts anyone. No, these new playground terrorists get suspended for having a Hello Kitty bubble gun, pointing fingers at playmates while making the ubiquitous “pow” sound of a gun, or even disposing of an imaginary bomb in order to save the world.
Thank God these school administrators are here to save our playgrounds from future Jack Bauers, MacGyvers and Chuck Norrises.
Before you think I’m coming down too hard on principals who have to enforce their “zero tolerance” policies about weapons and violence in an age of school shootings, think about how easy the zero tolerance policy has made the task of suspending kids, and how we are increasingly living in a stark black-and-white world with fewer and fewer shades of gray.
Things have sure changed in our schools.
A generation ago, no one would have thought much about a kid drawing a weapon on a sheet of paper, or shooting a rubber band with his finger, or playing pretend with nothing but his imagination. He certainly would not have been labeled a “terroristic threat.”
At my first elementary school, justice for the most offensive rule violators was still violent. A trip down to the office to get paddled was commonplace.
Today, I don’t let my art students draw weapons, except for the occasional sword, and certainly no blood. Playgrounds are soft and padded. Doors are locked and videorecorded (ensuring that if a shooter was outside the building, no one on the playground could get inside to safety without keys or punch codes). And justice, while not violent, is paradoxically more swift and punitive than ever when it comes to stamping out violence.
The Appearance of Safety
Well, I take that back. School justice is swift and punitive at stamping out the appearance of violence.
See, people who shoot up schools always have plenty of red flags and warning signs. They are anti-social, lonely, depressed and exceptionally angry. They don’t usually bring pink bubble guns to school a decade prior to their crimes.
I was nearly suspended a week before my high school graduation for unauthorized use of the keypad on the school’s side door. Was I a threat? No, I was staying after school for debate practice.
See, these “zero tolerance” rules may look good, and may give the appearance of safety. But they do nothing to address the real terrorists. They just punish and inconvenience kids who have absolutely no terroristic intentions.
Zero Shades of Gray
School administrators have to deal with a lot. Our schools are in trouble academically, and they are threatened by violence. But what strikes me is actually how easy their job is, thanks to “zero tolerance” policies about violence.
No longer does a teacher or principal have to use any judgment when a kid brings a toy gun to school. They don’t have to consider the situation and deliberate the punishment. The rule says suspension. Zero tolerance. Black and white.
Kid points his finger in a “gun” shape. Black and white. Suspension.
Kid diffuses an imaginary bomb. Black and white. No shades of gray. Suspension.
A Zero Tolerance World
As much as you might roll your eyes at a harmless kid getting suspended, the black and white world we are creating is just easier to cope with. It doesn’t require thought or judgment. Zero tolerance isn’t just on the playground. It’s our society, despite all our boasting to the contrary.
It’s easier to label people, use stereotypes, use a one-size-fits-all mentality, divide people in us verses them, and then label them as “wrong,” “evil,” or “enemy.” It keeps us placated with the illusion of safety.
It’s easier to just say Saved or Lost…
Liberal or Conservative.
Patriot or Traitor.
Black or White.
We tolerate a lot of hurtful things in our zero tolerance world.
What do you think? Are the schools in the right? Is our culture becoming more and more “zero tolerance” like our schools?