I disagree with mandatory sentences in criminal law–and school punishments. Zachary Christie’s suspension from school for possession of a folding combination knife, fork, and spoon shows why. Zachary is six years old, in first grade, and was proud to use his new cub scout utensil at lunch. For violating its no-weapons policy the school punished him with 45 days suspension–45 days!!!!!–and required him to attend its alternative program for disciplinary hard cases during the suspension period. (Since this story broke a few days ago the school board voted to reduce the punishment for kindergarten and first grade violators to suspension of three to five days.) The no-weapons policy applied regardless of the possessor’s intent so the school had no choice but to suspend him. No discretion, which means no application of common sense, was allowed. Schools defend such policies as being necessary to protect schoolchildren, an objective whose emotional freight crowds out rational discussion of a policy’s merits. Questioning their wisdom opens one to accusations of callous disregard for the well-being of children, of playing roulette with children’s lives. Not the way to ingratiate oneself to the neighbors.
Supporters justify zero-tolerance policies with five words, you can’t be too careful, as if uttering these words were conclusive, irrefutable proof of their position. I disagree. You can be too careful. However laudable their goals, zero-tolerance policies sacrifice justice, common sense, wisdom, and human dignity for expediency. Zero-tolerance is the opposite of thought. It negates our miraculous ability to reason. Someone (possibly Mark Twain, but I doubt it) said “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” To an institution with a zero-tolerance policy, every violation looks like a life-or-death threat on Childhood, or National Security, or whatever the policy is supposed to protect. The fact that a zero-tolerance policy was instituted becomes justification for applying it without considering whether less rigid policies would better serve the stated goals. One instituted, zero-tolerance policies rarely tolerate modification.