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Biting Commentary

Divine Inspiration of the Single-Issue Idiot Part 3

By Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR

Originally Posted

I have zero tolerance for zero tolerance.






  • The oak leaf caper. School authorities in Sumpter County, Fla., suspended a 10-year-old girl for pointing an oak leaf at a classmate. The miscreant pretended the oak leaf was a gun, in a game she called "Civil War." Officials decided the game was too threatening, when the little girl said she was going to "kill" her classmate and pretended to stab her with the leaf.

    Oak leaves in Florida must be more ferocious than around here. Maybe like their cockroaches.

  • Dressed down. Two Marine recruits, proudly wearing the Corps' dress blue uniforms, were not allowed to attend their graduation ceremony at Elkhart, Indiana, Memorial High School. They didn't adhere to the unalterable dress code of a collared shirt, tie, and slacks, which, apparently, was handed down on stone tablets from Mount Sinai.

    In this case, no one was harmed, except, perhaps, the Constitution, our armed services, and any lingering respect for the school district's numskull administrators. I wonder if the decision would have been the same after the suicide attacks on U.S. soil? I fear that it would.

  • Playing chicken. "Pow! Pow! Pow!" No, it wasn't the sound of gunfire in the school; it was what an eight-year-old boy in a Jonesboro, Ark., school said, as he pointed a dreaded breaded chicken finger at a teacher. He was suspended for three days.

    Must be some dangerous spices on that chicken finger. Think what might have happened if he'd drawn a real weapon.

  • Picture this. You don't have to practice your quick-draw in Oldsmar, Fla. Merely drawing pictures of weapons got a dangerously artistic 11-year-old taken away in handcuffs.

    Handcuffs for an 11-year-old wielding a notepad? Wonder what would have happened if he'd had an actual toy gun?

  • Don't toy with us. Stuart, Fla., police arrested a nine-year-old second grader who allegedly aimed a toy gun at a classmate. The kid was charged with aggravated assault.

    Aggravated assault!!! Assault with premeditated intent to play cops and robbers, perhaps?

  • Nobody wins. It's tough to win a game of tag at West Annapolis, Md., Elementary School. If you're "it," you're going to remain "it" forever, for tagging a playmate violates the school's "no touching" policy. Concerned principal Joan Brisco has outlawed the game.

    Brisco, who apparently never had a childhood -- or, charitably, perhaps she was a battered child -- said tag inevitably gets "too rough."

    Like so many other overreactions by single-issue idiots, the obvious answer -- supervision and banning "rough tagging" -- was never considered. Why solve a problem when, instead, you can make everyone equally miserable?

Zero Tolerance Run Amok

Under the guise of apparent evenhandedness, application of these idiotic policies is inherently unfair. The Web site Zero Tolerance = Zero Common Sense = Zero Justice says it far better than I could: Such abrogation of common sense represents "intentional self-lobotomization on the part of school administrators."

The idea behind zero tolerance came from drug enforcement policies of the 1980s. Originally, it referred to punishing all offenses, no matter how minor, with equal severity.

Hmmm. It still does.

Anyone who has ever managed people knows that treating everyone exactly the same is about the dumbest policy you could develop.

If you treated the most experienced communicators like newbies, somewhere in the midst of the vitriolic diatribe about organizational stupidity and your heritage, they'd quit. If you treated all inexperienced practitioners the same as someone with 20 years' experience, they'd sink your organization.

No, anyone with an ounce of sense knows that, in an organizational setting, you look at the circumstances, apply a little experience and judgment and thought, and deal with every person and incident individually, recognizing differences, and distinctions, and nuances, so you can achieve the best possible outcome.

Show Me Your Tool

It is only if you personify the Peter Principle, have risen above your level of competence, and have absolutely no self-concept or self-confidence, that you would ever consider an arsenal consisting of a single weapon -- excuse me, a single tool -- as a justifiable position.

It is as absurd as saying a news release is the answer to every communication problem. The boss has ruled: You can only use one tactic, no matter what the issue.


There are still unthinking teachers and administrators and Board of Education members and citizens who believe that an equitable education means doing exactly the same thing for every student. Surely no College of Education teaches this alarming idea!

Forrest, You're No Einstein!

Do you really think an emotionally disturbed, behaviorally deficient student with a low IQ, and an under-prepared student who was unjustifiably peer-passed, and an average kid, and a gifted student in the top two percent of the entire school district should receive absolutely equal educational treatment?

No, if you had an ounce of fairness and really understood the concept of equity, you would give them a differentiated, educationally appropriate curriculum that directly related to their abilities and backgrounds, and that stood the greatest chance of helping each of them achieve as much as he was capable of.

You would demonstrate flexibility and take the differing facts and circumstances into account.

Just as you should with a kid who has a penknife for show-and-tell, compared with those sick little murdering assholes in Littleton, Colo. Surely even the single-issue, zero-tolerance boobs in school systems across the country can see the difference.

A school district has a perfect right to protect students, to prevent riots, and fighting, and abuse, and obscenity, and general unrest. If my kids went there, I'd damn well demand that they assure my kid's safety and evenhanded treatment.

Adult Supervision Would Be Nice

But when decisions were made about my kid's and my neighbors' kids' well-being, I'd like for an actual adult to be in the room, not an unthinking automaton.

Allow me just two more examples:


  • We didn't like Diogenes, either. Shanon Coslet, a 10-year-old from Longmont, Colo., was featured on ABC-TV's "20-20" after being expelled from Twin Peaks Charter Academy.

    Her crime? Her mother had put a small knife in her lunchbox to cut an apple. Shanon realized that the knife might violate school weapons policy, so she turned it in to her teacher. The teacher told her she had done the right thing. The school agreed. And expelled her.

    The Academy got the ridicule they so richly deserved on national TV.

  • Cutting class. A nine-year-old Louisiana honor student was impressed by a relative in the army. He drew a picture of the soldier holding a canteen and a knife. As far as we know, the soldier was not brandishing the knife. Or the canteen.

    The child drew a fort for the soldier, and even included a list of the fort's inventory. Most of us would give him high marks for creativity.

    However, a helpful teacher saw the drawing and Lenwill Elementary School principal Edward Davis promptly suspended the young patriot, telling the Associated Press, "It had hand grenades, knives, and guns. We have zero tolerance for drawings with guns." And this idiot has authority over children!

    It's a good thing the kid didn't think to draw President Jimmy Carter, wearing a helmet, in a tank. I hate to imagine what would have happened.

As Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake, Calif., puts it, "Zero tolerance simply means all misbehavior will have some sanction. It doesn't mean you bring the maximum punishment for every transgression." I guess this bleeding-heart liberal would be against the death penalty for shoplifters, too.

The National Education Association opposes zero tolerance "in general," calling for case-by-case consideration by teachers and administrators using their knowledge of the students and the situation before determining an outcome. The American Federation of Teachers, which originally supported zero tolerance, now opposes it. The American Bar Association has also come out in opposition to the policy.

What? No Drugs? Now That's Going Too Far!

Supporters of draconian zero-tolerance policies say the outcome may be painful, but school officials need to send the message that drugs and weapons have no place in schools.

Nobody argues with this. When the drugs are used to get high, rather than to relieve a headache; when the weapons are used to threaten and intimidate, rather than to spread peanut butter on a sandwich in a sack lunch; when the penciled note is a direct threat, rather than an artistic effort, lock the little bastards up.

But the next time some stupid principal tries to expel a kid because she said bang-bang with a leaf, I'd really, really like to be on his review committee. Then we'd see who gets suspended ... or expelled.

If you want to do a bit of research on the subject, or if you want to make yourself as mad as I am about zero-tolerance policies, check out "Our overlawyered schools" at

Next week, I'll conclude this series about single-issue idiots wearing blinders in a complex world.

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