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Education Reporter

Zeroing in on Zero Tolerance:
What's it really about?

Tales of schoolchildren harshly penalized for seemingly innocuous violations of "Zero Tolerance" policies continue to surface in the media, despite lawsuits and public outrage. Here are a few recent examples:

  • An eight-year-old boy was suspended from Lenwill Elementary School in West Monroe, Louisiana, for drawing an outline of a fort with a soldier wearing camouflage fatigues and armed with knives and hand grenades.

  • Two 2nd graders in Irvington, New Jersey were suspended and charged with making terrorist threats for playing cops and robbers with a paper gun. School officials summoned police and the students were hauled to the local precinct station. A court will determine whether the boys need "counseling."

  • Two Washington Township, New Jersey high school students were suspended for wearing T-shirts the principal considered offensive and racist. One student, a senior, wore a shirt purchased at Wal-Mart displaying the words "Redneck Sports Fan" and including lines from comedian Jeff Foxworthy's acts. The other student, a sophomore, wore a shirt decorated with a small Confederate battle flag.

  • The timeless child's game of tag has been outlawed at the West Annapolis Elementary School in Maryland, despite a 5th grader's petition drive to bring it back. The principal declared the game "too rough" and noted that it violates the school's "no touching" policy.

For years, parents and students have been chafing under the nationwide policy known as Zero Tolerance. The tragedy at Columbine High School was used to justify excessive punishment for benign violations - to the point that the term "zero tolerance" has become laughable, except to the schools imposing the penalties and to the students and parents being penalized. The question is, why do these policies persist despite parental outcry and, occasionally, unnecessary legal action?

Some education researchers say these policies are the result of a process that has been in the works for decades and is finally coming to fruition. In her article "Zero Tolerance for Non-Compliance," researcher and author Berit Kjos states that both zero tolerance and mental health policies "are vital parts of a far more insidious program of intimidation, control, and cultural transformation." She cites a 1970 prediction by Raymond Houghton, Professor of Secondary Education at Rhode Island College, which can be found in "To Nurture Humaneness: Commitment for the '70s" (by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development of the NEA, 1970): ". . . .absolute behavior control is imminent. . . . The critical point of behavior control, in effect, is sneaking up on mankind without his self-conscious realization that a crisis is at hand. Man will . . . never self-consciously know that it has happened."

In 1934, NEA leader Willard Givens wrote: "The major function of the school is the social orientation of the individual. It must seek to give him an understanding of the transition to a new social order." A few years ago, President Bill Clinton put the same philosophy in more appealing language: "Teach our children to be good citizens. Promote order and discipline. . . . Impose curfews, enforce truancy laws, remove disruptive students from the classroom and have zero tolerance for guns and drugs."

Clinton's marketing strategy, says Mrs. Kjos, matched that of educational change agents who say one thing but mean another. The definition of a "good citizen" is a global citizen in the minds of leading educators. "Our new education system is designed to instill a utopian vision of global interdependence in people everywhere," she writes. "Contrasted to the exaggerated evils of Western culture, this vision looks enticing enough to motivate many to accept unthinkable environmental and social restraints."

"Using 'zero tolerance' policies to shock, embarrass, and intimidate students into compliance with irrational rules fits the plan," she continues. "Most students caught in the confusing web of federal regulations must endure long sessions in 'conflict resolution' and 'anger management' - two related psycho-social strategies used to instill a submissive, collectivist mentality. They have already become standard procedure in our nation's classrooms."

Columnist and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Thomas Sowell could have been summarizing Zero Tolerance when he told Forbes magazine in 1993: "The techniques of brainwashing developed in totalitarian countries are routinely used in psychological conditioning programs imposed on American school children. These include emotional shock and desensitization, psychological isolation from sources of support, stripping away defenses, manipulative cross-examination of . . . moral values, and inducing acceptance of alternative values by psychological rather than rational means."

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