Zero Tolerance and Prison Ethics

New York state generally believes that no rehabilitation measures can cure the latent danger of murders, rapists or other menaces who diminish the wellbeing of society. If the warden, twirling his nightstick, sees drugs in the prison yard or knives in the cafeteria or hears threats shouted through the cell doors, he punishes the prisoners quickly and without remorse, without discretion and without leeway. After all, inmates detained in high security prisons are dangerous folk, and nothing can fix that.

This Draconian discipline philosophy makes a great deal of sense in a system designed to punish and ostracize lowlife prisoners. But in a suburban school in place to equip teenage boys and girls (who aren't dangerous folk) with the skills needed to succeed in the real world beyond Cameron's Deli, the prison ethic that knives are for killing and drugs are for destroying is wayward, dangerous and the cause of a great deal of human unhappiness.

In the age of zero tolerance, the buzz-word for school administrators, discipline hearings conduct themselves as trials in carnival courtrooms of the absurd. A picture with a beer bottle means forced abdication from peer group, National Honors Society, suspension from sports teams, poetry clubs and Campus Congress. No questions asked. A pocket knife equates to five day suspension regardless of intent or motivation or circumstance. Signing a yellow pass without a monitor so one can go home on the late bus – a requirement bafflingly illogical – means forgery and theft and destruction of school property and a five day suspension reported on the college application.

Teenagers do foolish things and make nonsensical decisions; That's the hallmark of being an adolescent. We're certainly not children, but we're not yet adults. Sure, mistakes are made, but even by the most decent and forthright students. Gratuitous violence is a rarity, so why assume that a pocket knife is a weapon? Fraternizing and co-mingling with others that drink beer is a requisite, so why treat such actions and wicked and evil and punishable in an extreme degree? Because there's a slip-up doesn't mean we're armed and dangerous, prepared to destroy the world's gentle. It means we're teenagers. It's gleefully understood by administrators of school justice that no-mitigation five day suspensions are permanent fixtures on a student's college application. If we're decent and well-meaning students and not despicable fugitives, why do our punishments damage our futures rather than guide them? Why do they destroy rather than improve?

It's a truism that any philosophy taken to the extreme is bad. But the impulses behind zero tolerance (the name itself belying its sanity) are a reflection of the broader impulses behind Americanism. There is no statistical evidence whatsoever that zero tolerance works to decrease school violence or drug use; Instead, it's a political and symbolic policy that reflects in a nation whose flag colors don't run our collective fetish for “personal responsibility.” We pull ourselves up from our bootstraps, we wage war on poverty, drugs and terror and we need to take ownership of our actions. We prosecute the “bad apples” at Abu Ghraib, but don't investigate the insidious undercurrents that the apples grew from. To admit that perhaps teenagers drink because they're stifled and bored or cheat on tests because they're beaten by the high expectations of John Jay hyper-competitiveness, to suggest that certain banalities are symptomatic of broader pathologies of adolescence would be permissive, and permissiveness is the sign of an ideology which is in serious disfavor. The advocates of zero tolerance scoff at nuance as yellow-bellied and discretion as weakness.

Zero tolerance leaves a profound impress on the minds of the decent future leaders of our world that they are not teenagers who might make a few mistakes, but are inmates in a dreary bureaucracy where procedure takes precedence over common sense, where authority is the enemy, justice is irrelevant and the distinction between a school system and prison system is merely rhetorical decoration.



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