The Zero Tolerance Approach
It appears to be a trend in American culture lately to "get tough" on bad things. I don't know how long this has been going on, but, today it seems like we hear more rhetoric about "getting tough" on things like violence, drugs, and terrorism than ever before.
One offshoot of "get tough" policies is the "Zero Tolerance" policies applied to things like drugs and violence in schools. These policies hold that severe punishments will be enacted against a student without regard to circumstances. Critical factors in determining the severity of the case are to be intentionally ignored--the intent of the policy is to severely punish any unauthorized behavior. These policies are the laws of the educational institution.
Typical punishments under Zero Tolerance policies are severe. Since policies are usually determined by individual school boards, they vary broadly from place to place. In some locations however, even a first time self-defender will be punished with expulsion.
The Problems of Administration
The details related to managing a population of children are often quite boring. Yet some aspects of school management strike at issues central to our notions of justice. The management of violence is one such aspect. How do schools deal with violence, and why do many opt for Zero Tolerance policies?
One rationale is that such policies will reduce fighting in general. If both parties in a fight know they will be punished severely, no matter what excuses they make, then both sides should be less inclined to fight with one another.
Ideally, students who find themselves in a bad situation should run away and find a legitimate authority quickly. Never should they be allowed to take justice into their own hands.
"It's better to just punish them all than try to sort it out when we don't have the facts."
"The good kids aren't ever really involved in fights anyways."
Statements such as these seem to have a similar reasoning behind them: it's better to just punish anyone who engages in such activity than to seriously consider the possibility that some were justified.
Another factor to consider is the school district's liability for violence. If the school encourages fighting, even in self-defense, it opens itself up to a whole array of legal problems.
To stretch this line of reasoning even further, if a school isn't doing everything it can to prevent fighting, including Zero Tolerance, then isn't it in some way encouraging violence? Many people take up this line of reasoning and apply pressure on schools to adopt tough policies.
I find both of these arguments for Zero Tolerance unappealing.
The notion that Zero Tolerance reduces fighting is flawed. It seems like these policies actually enable predators to attack more freely. Troublemakers usually don't care about getting punished -- those nerds getting beat up, on the other hand, generally have more respect for the school's policies and rules.
I'm probably being too cynical, but a part of me thinks that school administrators are well aware of this effect, and actively encourage it. After all, it's good to have someone who can unofficially keep things in line. Such troublemaking students could always be transferred to another school if they get too out of hand.
More realistically, it's probably just administrators being lazy and not wanting to deal with these issues. Almost every student has been violently harassed at some point in his life, and, many can relate to a story of school officials who just didn't care.
What are the implications of such a mindset? Are these policies indicative of deeper changes in the way we view individual action?
Society certainly holds individuals to a different standard outside the school system. Almost every moral code recognizes the right to self-defense. Even the US legal system has a strong tradition of protecting individals who take matters into their own hands.
As we should. In many cases, people are forced to defend themselves. They might be cornered by some villain--without recourse to any other option. Such a person would certainly be unable to simply seek out the proper authority and notify them of the problem. Even if they could escape to make such notification, what good does that do when the authorities either cannot or will not help.
Is this comparison appropriate for children? In some ways, I believe it is. After all, even grade school children face situations in which their only recourse is to take matters into their own hands. The existance of these situations should make us seriously question Zero Tolerance policies which rule out such situational factors.
Shades of Gray
From what I've said so far, it seems like the case against Zero Tolerance would be quite clear cut. In actuality, there are many gray areas.
First, in the case mentioned, an exemption did exist for self-defense. While expulsion was the set punishment for fighting, or fighting back, the school's policy also stated that self-defense would be considered before a student was expelled.
Yet I have problems with this as well. It seems unlikely that any sort of appeals process conducted at this level would be fair. Instead, the accused would almost certainly be railroaded through some kind of sham trial where his assumed guilt was taken as fact. School administration and staff are notoriously prone to groupthink. I'd imagine that a student's arguments in such a situation would carry very little weight when compared to the "trustworthy" teacher or administrator arguing for the toughest punishment. Furthermore, the previously mentioned community pressures to "get tough" would likely work against the student as well.
In fact, things get even murkier. Policies such as Zero Tolerance and the specific manner in which they are supposed to be administered are usually decided at the district level by school boards. Since the districts are local government bodies, policies vary geographically. Yet even local school districts usually govern many schools. In turn, there are several lower levels where discretion regarding district policies might interfere with implementation. For example, principals, teachers, and other staff might intervene with their own interpretations of the policy.
This is certainly what happened in the case at hand - teachers at Hastings High School specifically warned students that if they hit back against an attacker, they would be expelled.
Matthew Malloy heeded those warnings. This seventeen year old baseball player standing over six feet tall and weighing in at over two hundred pounds was assaulted while escorting a frightened student across campus. He probably could have defended himself, at least to some degree, had he decided to do so. Instead, he decided not to fight back, in accordance with the policy as it was explained to him by school officials. He also wound up in the hospital with extensive injuries, including a broken jaw that has not completely healed two years later.
The Malloy family has filed suit against the district, contending that the policy in question left Matthew defenseless and ultimately contributed to the severity of his injury. The district certainly shares at least part of the responsibility for his injuries. Every person ought to be clearly protected in their right to defend themselves, not made to fear the consequences of doing so.
Yet such lawsuits seem an ineffective cure to the problem. Sure, some asshole administrator might be fired, and one district's policy might be changed, but at what cost? If Malloy's case is successful, millions of tax dollars might be diverted from the public schools into private hands. In this case, I'd say the Malloys deserve such funds, but, there is a huge problem with such means of dispute resolution--the public is forced to pay for the irresponsibility of a few school officials, draining already strained public coffers even further.
There is a fine line to be walked between appeasing communities that demand tough punishments and setting commonsense rules that allow people the basic right of self-defense. Furthermore, dispute resolution through the courts often leaves communities with even more problems than they began with. What is clear is that Zero Tolerance policies that forbid self-defense, limit consideration of critical circumstances, and encourage mass hysteria are wrongheaded and ought to be fought outright.