School Violence and Our Zero Tolerance World

February 20, 2013

The scene of some dangerous finger pointing, noise making and make-believe playtime. Crisis averted, thanks to quick thinking by heroic school officials.

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.

Schoolyard Justice

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?

12 responses to School Violence and Our Zero Tolerance World

  1. Well, duh, of course it’s easier to live in an artificial, simplistic, good-guys-versus-bad-guys society. Just like it’s so much easier put metal detectors on everything, give every teacher a gun, and do a bunch of hand-wringing over bullying or the lack of school prayer or violent video games or whatever your pet project happens to be.

    To do otherwise would be to admit that random, tragic s–t happens all the damn time, there’s no “reason” or “higher authority” behind it, and we’re all powerless to do anything about it.

    I don’t the average person could wrap their head around that. I know I can’t.

    • I mean “I don’t think”. I was doing this on my phone.

    • We have to come to terms with the balance between God’s sovereignty and the “random” stuff that happens.

      Ironically, we take Jeremiah’s words out of context where God says “I know the plans I have for you – to prosper and not to harm you.” God let Jeremiah be persecuted, exiled, thrown down a well/toilet and have to run for his life.

  2. I think we’re fighting this war on violence with the wrong weapons. Like you said, there is always a warning sign. And until we are willing to lay down our law books and reach out to that lonely kid, extend grace to that difficult teenager, invest our time and energy in floundering families, we have no right to scream for justice.

  3. It is all about power.
    It is all about money
    Some people see only the economic sense
    Duty Of Care & Occupational, Health & Safety dictate policy
    Insurance and legal obligations weigh down the system
    Everyone fears being sued.
    Adherents to policy do not see the humanitarian side unless it suits economically.

  4. Policies and procedures contribute to the very problem of living in fear.
    Love casts out all fear.
    This social phenomenon affects the whole world. The world creates chaos to try and manufacture order.

  5. As a nation, we have a new god, the god of safety. I confess that there are times that I bow down to its alter, too. We seem to be willing to sacrifice everything in order to be guaranteed to live our lives in safety. But safety has never been one of the things that God has guaranteed us this side of heaven and it is futile to pursue it to the degree we do. And the unintended consequences of pursuing safety is that we live in and are controlled by fear, who is quite the Taskmaster.

    Who can rescue us from this slavery? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ!

  6. I hadn’t heard the one about the kid getting suspended for “saving the world. Thanks for posting that one along with the others.

    Although I have never been on one, perhaps if more of us left our little neighborhoods and went on mission trips to a third world country, we’d see a bigger picture of good vs evil, rather than swatting at gnats.