‘Zero Tolerance’ May Harm More Than it Helps

October 15, 2009 at 5:00 am 3 comments

The camping utensil brought to school by Zachary Christie

The camping utensil brought to school by Zachary Christie

Six-year-old first grader, Zachary Christie, was recently at the center of a debate over a school district policy when he brought a camping utensil to school. The tool looked like a pocket knife and contained a fork, spoon, can opener, and a small knife. For bringing a deadly weapon to school, Zachary was suspended for five days and was prohibited from returning to Downes Elementary School until after 45 days at an alternative school. Zach says he brought the tool to school so he could eat his pudding. (source)

The Christina School District, in Newark, Delaware, has a so-called “zero-tolerance” policy against bringing dangerous items to school, spurred mostly by safety concerns raised by Columbine and other school shootings. But after public outcry over the extreme sentence for a 6-year-old who wanted to eat pudding, the Christina School District decided to reexamine it’s harsh policy. “We need to recognize the cognitive level of these kids,” said school board member John Mackenzie. “We need to provide a little leeway.”

Political Rhetoric

“Zero-tolerance” is great political phrases. When a politician or a school board member up reelection uses it, they’re seen as “tough” on crime and someone who is protecting the public from all the bad people out in the world who want to harm them. But a one-size-fits-all approach to punishing criminals is rarely productive and can often be harmful to both the criminal and society.

Drug Policy

For example, ANY drug offense will bar the offender from receiving any future federal student aid money. This zero-tolerance policy means that any person convicted of possession of any amount of controlled substance can never receive federal loan or grant money to attend college. I realize that this punitive measure is meant as a deterrent to keep kids off drugs, but it also harms ex-drug users by denying them any help in getting an education and turning their lives around. On the other hand, if you are a child molester, rapist, or murderer, you can receive federal student aid without any problems.

Sex Offender Laws

In addition, sex offender residency restrictions are very popular for obvious reasons: no one wants a convicted sex offender living next door to them or next to a school or playground. However, overly harsh restriction laws also prevent former offenders from finding descent housing, pushing them to edges of society where their likelihood of re-offending is actually higher—as evidenced by the case of Philip Garrido. Offender residency restriction laws have also been used to keep sex offenders from attending church and receiving counseling, and, in Florida, has created a homeless sex offender camp underneath a bridge where over 100 registered sex offenders live, creating a public health and safety concern. These one-size-fits-all policies not only punish violent sex offenders like rapists and child molesters, but—in some states—punishes those who have urinated in public or had sex with their high school girlfriend after they turned 18.

Get Smarter

As citizens, we need to step back from zero-tolerance rhetoric and take a smarter approach to handling criminals in our society—not a “tougher” approach. Fortunately, the Christina School Board reversed its zero-tolerance policy and allowed for the age and cognitive ability of the perpetrator to be taken into account when assigning punishment. Now that Zach can go back to school, what has he learned from the whole experience? I’m sure he’s learned not to take a camping tool to school anymore, but how will this experience affect the way he views teachers, rules, law enforcement, and any other form of authority from now on? Will he see them as allies and protectors, or will he see them as vindictive enforcers who would rather punish instead of teach? For his sake and for ours, I hope it is the former.

Check out this video of the Christina School District debating the policy, as well as reactions from concerned parents:
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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sam Caldwell  |  October 15, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    With respect to your section on sex offender laws, here are a few facts that escape mainstream media…

    (1) According to US Department of Justice statistics, only 5% of sex offenders released in 1994 were returned to prison for a new sex crime.

    (2) Accourding to the California Attorney General’s office, “90% of child victims know their offender, with almost half of the offenders being a family member. Of sexual assaults against people age 12 and up, approximately 80% of the victims know the offender.” (Citing “Facts About Sex Offenders,” http://www.meganslaw.ca.gov/facts.aspx?lang=ENGLISH)

    (3) Research also indicates that most sex offenses are committed by FIRST TIME OFFENDERS and not by repeat offenders…a fact reinforced by the 5% recidivism rate.

    (4) States already have registries, and now the federal government is imposing its legislation on a state matter, threatening to remove 10% of federal funds from non-compliant states. This is more about money than public safety.

    (5) Do you consider your federal government MORE efficient and responsive to the public interest than the states?

    (6) Do you support a national ID card system? There are more than 650,000 people registered as sex offenders today with an annual growth rate of 7%.

    (7) Most are not aware of the increasing number of persons considered to be “sex offenders” or the crimes they have committed, including persons who have simply urinated on the side of the road without knowing a minor was present.

    (8) The largest group of registered sex offenders are 14-year-olds who will more than likely never commit a new crime.

    These laws are a bad idea.

    Reply
  • 2. Dara June  |  October 21, 2009 at 7:21 am

    I know a girlwho was molested when Ishewas 7 and her sister was 8.By their brothrs who were 14 and 15.The 14 yr old hasn’t as of this date molested anyone else.But the 15 yr old molested many more children (his own included)all his life and suffered when he died.But the mother protected him and continued to take him back.He was also abusive to her constantly.Where the 14 yr old went on to lead a productive life.
    Now the sister who was molested by the 15yr old went on to have a productive life and a 32 yr marrage.Where the sister who was molested by the 14yr old ended up married 5 time’s is a recovering alcholic.And moved from state to state as if always trying to get away.
    So what does this tell us in the statistics of thing’s?I wonder?Now in her 50’s has finally settled down.to a 20 yr marrage.

    Reply
  • 3. Dara June  |  October 21, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Also this is not backword’s .IT IS AS IT IS WRITTEN.

    Reply

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