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Zero tolerance idiocracy

It’s dress up Friday at my daughter’s magnet school, in which students can ditch uniforms and come as their favorite novel character.  My daughter’s dressing as Katniss from “The Hunger Games.”  While she was walking out the door with her crossbow and quiver of rubber arrows, I reminded my wife of the school district’s zero tolerance policy on weapons and suggested that she leave the arrows home.  It’s rare that I’m the sensible parent but I ’d just recently read about the seven-year-old second grader in Baltimore who was suspended for two days for munching his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun.

Katniss’ appeal to a tween girl is obvious: pretty but tough; emotionally vulnerable but self-sufficient.  To a girl on the cusp of puberty she presents a model of femininity that isn’t dainty and of adulthood that isn’t boring.  But a Katniss without her arrows is like a cat without its claws.

Some of the pedagogical impact of dressing like Katniss was lost when we made our daughter leave the arrows home.  Yet a zero tolerance policy made us fear suspension–perhaps even expulsion–for an honor student who’s never had a discipline problem (in contrast, thirty-five years ago, I could bring a Swiss army knife to public school and it wasn’t an issue).

Just today one of my fantasy dinner guests, sabermetric guru Bill James, was blogging about the harm of zero tolerance policies as it regards air travel, writing:

It’s hard to explain, but. . . .introducing any absolute into a system of competitive values destroys the system, since an absolute has infinite value, which gradually, by its interaction with other values, consumes the value of everything that it competes with.    That probably sounds obscure, but it’s something that happens all the time, and it plays a role in all of the discussions we have here, including the child safety discussions, etc.   Zero-tolerance policies for drugs and other ills are a cheap but useful example.  The FAA places an absolute value on risk prevention, which erodes and corrupts all other values of the system, such as speed and efficiency.

A zero tolerance policy that cannot distinguish partially-chewed Pop Tarts and rubber arrows from gats and glocks (and cannot distinguish Midol from methamphetamine) is idioical.  But it’s the culture we currently live in.

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