Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

Texas state senators are growing increasingly worried that their legislative mandates regarding zero-tolerance for bad behavior have gone too far, “noting that minority students are bearing the brunt of the punishment and school police officers are writing too many tickets for insignificant infractions.”  These tickets, written by school police officers are radically disproportionate to the overall student population. Forgetting for a minute that we have school police officers (egads–wasn’t that what the scary assistant principal used to be for?), does it surprise anyone that zero-tolerance doesn’t work?

Fortunately, our “conservative” legislature has discovered that passing state-wide mandates and wresting local control from the public schools is ineffective. (I put conservative in quotes here because I don’t really think our legislators are true conservatives. They might be Republicans, but the conservative politicians I know and respect value intellectual achievement, science, and a government limited but not a non-existent one. They also are pragmatic and willing to compromise as they strive to help all Americans achieve success.) In essence, the legislature created a system requiring that schools enact the maximum punishment each time a student misbehaved regardless of the circumstances, but now they want to back off because we need to pay attention to the circumstances regarding such behavior.

For instance, the article note, a student’s pregnancy impacted her willingness to come to school but because we have zero tolerance for such behavior, the police had the ability write her a ticket. I’m sure that helped make her feel so much more comfortable at school. They care, I’m sure she said, and I’ll never have sex again! Geez.

We are also finding, lo and behold, that some police are ticketing at a higher rate and, I know this will shock you, the police aren’t consistent in their ticketing policy. In fact, some see loud behavior as disruptive and some, hold on to your seats, see that same behavior as annoying but not ticket worthy. In other words, the police, caught in a bind between common sense and legislative over-reach, are forced to make judgments about misbehavior and criminal intent.

So the upshot of our legislative confusion regarding zero tolerance is that blanket policies don’t work because they are difficult to administer across cultures (both ethnic and educational) and because there are individual circumstances that we should consider before holding everyone to a standard set of behavioral rules.

Unless, of course, we are talking about the educational responsibility of the school. (Remember that’s why we created schools–to actually teach kids how to read, write, and do arithmetic.) The same legislative body who is realizing zero-tolerance policies don’t work is being lobbied to keep the STARR test, our state legislated standardized test, across schools without exceptions: zero-tolerance for those schools whose students don’t meet the appropriate passing rate. If the kid’s don’t pass, you get no money.

Fortunately, Greg Abbott, our state’s attorney believes “Texas’ public education system hinges on local control and that success or failure of a school district “is necessarily linked to the school district’s own leadership, policies and operations.”

He might want to pass that message along to the legislators, though. Remember, these are the folks who created the zero tolerance law? Maybe they missed the memo about local control. Then again, these are the same people who continually cut funding while demanding more accountability while also limiting the amount of money a school can raise by offering corporate tax breaks to create a “business” friendly environment and restricting local property tax rates, something that is a great idea if you live in an area where property has a high value. In other words, people who own valuable property in Texas pay a lower tax rate while generating more money for their schools. People in low property value areas pay a higher percentage but raise less money for their schools. Naturally. Because the kids from families who can afford expensive property need the most help in school. Right?

But, the state can’t afford to help support those schools because it doesn’t have any money and even if it did, raising money is a local issue. In essence, Abbott says, local areas are responsible for raising funds and spending them as they see fit.

Unless we are talking about developing discipline policies or deciding how to best measure student performance based on the unique circumstances that exist within their district.

Maybe what we need is a zero-tolerance policy for our state legislators? We could use the money to fund our schools.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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