The Seattle Times editorial board argues for “Zero tolerance for cyberbullies,” and while I’d agree that schools have rarely taken bullying nearly seriously enough, just the mention of the phrase “zero tolerance” gives me the willies.
McClure, like all Seattle Public Schools, has a zero-tolerance bullying policy. Cruel remarks and threats posted online may be someone’s idea of free speech but they violate school safety policies.
In recent rulings the U.S. Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that students don’t currently enjoy First Amendment protections even for off-campus speech (unless, of course, they incorporate), an unfortunate precedent that has emboldened school officials in the exercise of their authority. And as a former student myself, I just don’t trust that kind of authority.
First we had zero tolerance for drugs, a policy under which a 13-year-old girl could be strip-searched on suspicion of bringing ibuprofen to school. Then we had zero tolerance for weapons, a policy that inevitably lead to a 14-year-old girl being expelled from school for accidentally bringing in a butter knife.
Really. A butter knife.
And now we want zero tolerance on speech?
As ridiculous as the two examples above are, a pill is a pill and a knife is a knife, and I suppose if you want to be an asshole or an idiot about it, both violate the schools’ zero tolerance policies, and well, a rule is a rule. But if even things as concrete and well defined as physical objects can be taken out of context, just imagine the mess school officials can make applying a zero tolerance policy to words.
No context, no subtext, no reading between the lines unless school officials choose to read between the lines, regardless of what the student really meant. If a teacher overhears a student responding to abuse in kind, that’s a violation of the zero tolerance policy, regardless of whether the real bully was the unheard instigator. And if a school official chooses to misinterpret the typically cruel, mutually abusive teenage banter that often passes between friends, that’s a violation of the zero tolerance policy too.
Do I want schools to crack down on bullying? Absolutely. But do I want my own daughter to be subjected to a zero tolerance policy on something as inherently subjective as speech? Hell no!
A zero tolerance policy is the lazy way out of a complex social problem. It’s the cowardly way out. And it’s no excuse for diminishing the rights of students any further.