We Must Become Litigious Assholes or the Litigious Assholes Win

Via Thoreau, a story at Free Range Kids about "zero tolerance" policy run amok, this time from someone who moved to the US as a kid and ran up against the modern school culture in a bad way:

Once again, I came from a culture where you were made fun of if you forgot your pocket knife on a school trip. Then I entered a post-Columbine/Zero Tolerance hell. I hadn't used or even removed my knife from my bag while in school, but I did use it to cut a twig on my way home from school one day, and was apparently seen by one of my classmates. The next day, I was called into the principal's office where my mother and a police officer waited. The police officer padded me down and searched my bag, obviously finding my knife (which was confiscated). He then escorted me and my mother off school grounds and I was told not to come back until the school called.

He ended up with a probation officer, a social worker, and being sent to a special school for discipline problems, all of whom said he was wronged. There's a lot more detail in the full post, with a bonus anecdote about a more serious offense (by any sane standard) that drew lesser punishment.

I have to say, my first reaction was pretty much identical to one of the early comments:

And you did not file a huge civil rights lawsuit and make a media circus of this because... ???

Insert the usual caveats about plural anecdotes and confirmation bias, but this is the sort of thing I heard a lot of from my father, who spent thirty-odd years teaching sixth grade in a public school. Good kids get harsh, by-the-book punishments, while genuinely disruptive kids are often allowed to slide by with minimal response.

The thing a lot of these cases have in common is the reaction of the parents. The genuinely disruptive kids who stay in school despite repeated offenses often have genuinely disruptive parents who get all up in the faces of teachers and school administrators who try to do something about the problems caused by their kids. The good kids who get slammed, on the other hand, have parents who go along quietly, and only vent about it to friends or years later in carefully anonymized blog posts.

While I am not, in general, a big fan of rapid-fire lawsuits, I can't help thinking that the easiest way to fix this problem is for parents of kids like the one in this story to adopt the tactics of the parents of disruptive kids. I don't know if the kid in question would actually have had a winnable legal case (courts give an absurd amount of leeway to schools on some issues-- strip-searching a girl suspected of Advil possession made it all the way to the Supreme Court, for God's sake), but I'm pretty sure it could've been used to generate a bunch of embarrassing press coverage for the school, and possibly some legal bills. That's the sort of threat that makes the sort of school officials who are so skittish that they expel kids for having a Swiss army knife think twice.

The most effective response to this sort of thing is probably "When we leave this meeting, my first phone call will be to the ACLU. The second phone call will be to the local TV station." In this age of cell phones, you could probably threaten to call them from inside the school.

Of course, the proper solution would be for the school officials to exercise a bit of discretion and do the right thing by kids who aren't a perpetual nuisance. Sadly, that doesn't seem likely to happen, so the best way to force it might be to hit them with lawsuits from both directions. And that's a sad statement about the state of society.

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One thing that really bothers me about this is the phrase "on the way home." It didn't happen on school grounds, so why did they have any authority? The trend of schools escaping school grounds and exerting influence over children throughout their lives is very troubling. For instance, the Bong Hits For Jesus and laptop spying cases illustrate how schools have practically unmitigated authority to censor students or subject them to surveillance, whether or not they are on school grounds or participating in school activities at the time. In both of those cases, though, legal action didn't help, as the courts and prosecutors were party to this expansion of school power. I wish I knew of a better way, though, of attacking the problem.

@Chris- the 'crime' was presumably carrying a weapon on school property (as determined when they searched the backpack). If you are wondering if another student seeing him use it offcampus qualifies as 'probable cause' you are forgetting that students have no right to their own stuff in schools- lockers, backpacks, their own person (in one memorably disgusting case, a student was subjected to a strip search for ibuprofen). Kids have no rights, probable cause need not apply.
Best way to attack the problem- never NEVER let schools teach your kids (or any kids you care about) about democracy. It's not what they are designed to do.

@Chad- thanks for making the comment about 'good' kids getting 'by the book' punishments- when I read that I had a moment of clarity over something that's always bothered me (when I was in grade school we had a substitute music teacher and the regular teacher said anyone who got in trouble with him would get kicked out of chorus... a kid started poking me in the back out of nowhere. I ignored it at first, but then complained... thus resulting in no chorus for me).

It seems to be the strategy for special ed. kids as well. My little brother has autism, and his first middle school was both slow about getting him services he needed and had some kids who liked to pick on my brother, who would then blow up and get in trouble.

My mother was down at that school nearly constantly, usually with the district's autism specialist in tow, to tell the teachers what for. It got my brother through the year, but Mom decided that it would be for the best to switch middle schools for his last year to one with a better special ed program.

I'm sure the teachers hated her for butting in, but someone had to go to bat for Ben, and no one at the school seemed willing. Thankfully, at his second middle school and his high school, he did have teachers who would make sure he got the services he needed, so Mom could settle back into 'keep me informed' most of the time.

By Becca Stareyes (not verified) on 03 Sep 2010 #permalink

Somebody wrote a book called "The Death of Common Sense".
If this is not a perfect example, I do not know what is. It sounds like people just asking for a Totalitarian Police State, and that everyone needs a 'minder' to do their thinking for them - like Plato's socalled 'Republic'. It is certainly not in the American tradition where you could pretty much get along with the Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights. Maybe this nightmare story is what has come to replace those values.

By joel rice (not verified) on 03 Sep 2010 #permalink

From years of dealing with school districts now, I can tell you: never just go along with discipline procedures like this without a lawyer. Fortunately, I've never personally had to do this, but I have friends who have; they thought they could be reasonable and work with the district, and learned that the only way to get the district to listen to them was with a lawyer.

In general, I've found that I can handle simple, straightforward things. If those don't get resolved, then I have to bring along my Y chromosome, my husband. He immediately commands more attention and respect than I do, despite his personality being much more quiet and conflict-averse than mine. Anything serious, discipline or not, you need a lawyer. Districts will screw around with you, but they really don't want to get sued, so you get action when that letter with the law firm letterhead shows up.

Public education is asked to perform a myriad of often conflicting things, under increasing pressures of accountability. I'm a believer in public education, a donor, a voter, and a volunteer. I'm also a realist, and I know that for all the talk, a school district does not always put your child's best interests first.

An interview with the author of the book "Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear," Aaron Kupchik:


"We're teaching kids what it means to be a citizen in our country. And what I fear we're doing is teaching them that what it means to be an American is that you accept authority without question and that you have absolutely no rights to question punishment. It's very Big Brother-ish in a way. Kids are being taught that you should expect to be drug tested if you want to participate in an organization, that walking past a police officer every day and being constantly under the gaze of a security camera is normal. And my concern is that these children are going to grow up and be less critical and thoughtful of these sorts of mechanisms. And so the types of political discussions we have now, like for example, whether or not wiretapping is OK, these might not happen in 10 years."

Sometimes these things can be resolved.

A friend of mine has a son who basically was getting tossed out for half a year since he had committed the crime of defending himself. He had been punched in the chest, taken a bit of verbal abuse, and only started to defend himself after the first kid put him in a headlock.

A teacher, a school security guard, and other kids backed up his entire version of events. Still the school claimed to have a zero tolerance policy and all kids had to be suspended for fighting.

This lasted until I walked into the local school board meeting with a stack of paper about 3 inches thick. Turns out the State of Virginia had in some of their instructions to the School Boards mentioned the students right to defend themselves, so I brought copies for all the members.

Long story short, after a bit of pointed language about "school administrators seeking to curtail and vacate the rights enjoyed by all persons, regardless of age, and without proper authority" she got a call from the principal of the school that night apologizing, asking her to come in in the morning if she could, but that he was welcome back right away and everything was going to be taken out of his record.

I am particularly disturbed by the concept of "zero-tolerance" policies. The unique characteristic of humans is the ability to evaluate a situation and apply judgment. When people fail to think a problem through and instead take refuge behind a default policy, they relinquish their essential humanity. I can't shake the feeling that these "people" are in fact an entirely different species of some sort....

Spot on (although I'm not taking you literally in claiming situational judgment is unique to humans I understand your intent). There are some things which I don't have a problem being zero tolerance. Generally we call them felonies. But even those things aren't exactly zero tolerance, it all comes down to the details.

As the title said though, if only the litigious assholes litigate they will win. Zero tolerance policies are born out of fear. Fear of the events occuring, and fear of the lawsuit liability when they do. The policies themselves don't actually do anything unless one buys into the notion that all of the areas they cover are the type of events that will escalate into bigger problems. Which just isn't the case.

Little Bobby smacking Thomas in the back of the head one day during recess, while probably wrong (depends on the details), is not going to turn into Little Bobby bringing an Uzi to lunch. Now if Thomas is getting smacked around and harassed by his fellow students for months, and perhaps years, on end, and everyone in authority is turning a blind eye to it then he may bring that gun to school. He may do so after finding solace in another person who has been treated the same and feels similarly ostracized. But it wasn't the one smack that did it, it was more complicated than that.

Okay, I think that's a long enough comment. Off to ride motorcycles.

Lenore Skenazy is a goddess of ancient thought.

Even my brother, with whom I shared many great hours riding our bikes all over town (sometimes miles from home), would not let his kids leave the block they live on. Is it any wonder that there are so many Sheeple who believe anything someone tells them, or that college students go nuts when they finally leave home?

What is bizarre is that they were discriminating against someone from Switzerland, but any foreigner might be an auslander if you live in a rural PA exurb of Trenton.