Topic: Professions & Institutions

"Zero Tolerance" = Ethically Inert
(5/3/2004)

One can sympathize with schools and school boards, in this litigative era, that decide to install "zero tolerance" policies that eliminate any opportunity for debate or analysis. You do "X" and the punishment is "Y." No excuses, mitigating circumstances, or special dispensations allowed. There was an episode about this on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," in fact: a planet had eliminated all crime and all lawyers by having a mandatory execution, administered on the spot without trial, for any observed infraction. Then Wesley, the Enterprise's 13 year-old crew member, didn't notice a "Keep off the Grass" sign. As Jean Luc Picard made clear, yes, you can sympathize with the "zero tolerance" approach, but you can't condone it. Officials who install such policies willingly and knowingly meet out unjust punishment in order to avoid accountability for difficult decisions. The policies sacrifice innocent individuals in order to suppress argument and dissent. Enforcing rules about wrongful conduct necessarily requires evaluating whether the conduct is truly the wrong that the rule was designed to prevent. Refusing to do this by declaring "zero tolerance" is cowardly, and profoundly unethical.

This brings us to the disgraceful case of Amanda Conroy, who drove her mother's car to

Barron Collier High School in Naples, Florida. She did not know that her mother's stun gun was in the Durango, and once it was discovered by a stun-gun sniffing dog in one of the High School's random vehicle searches, she was, as they say, toast. The 18 year-old senior found herself in the iron grip of the school's "zero tolerance" no weapons rule, and her punishment includes banishment from her prom and graduation ceremonies, no diploma, and expulsion. Nobody disputes that Amanda isn't really guilty of anything, of course. But a rule's a rule. This is exactly what the two policemen on Melmak (or whatever the planet was called) explained to Jean Luc as they prepared to inject Grass-walking Wesley with poison.

Cruel? Arbitrary? Unjust? Pick your adjective, and the punishment of Amanda Collier probably fits it. This intentionally brain-dead and ethically inert strategy to achieve order is straight out of the oppression play-book. It constitutes blatant abuse of power, and an appalling inability to make ethical judgments. If everybody agrees that Amanda did nothing wrong, then she shouldn't be punished. That isn't a difficult concept to embrace. The argument that the rule itself defines her action as "wrong" is nonsense. Defining an innocent act as an offense doesn't transmute the act into a wrong. It simply creates an unjust situation that must be remedied.

We'll see if there are sufficient numbers of ethical, sensible, and courageous people in Naples to remedy this one. In the meantime, Ethics Scoreboard thanks www.zerointelligence.net for reporting on this story. The excellent web log documents "zero tolerance" abominations, and it will be included in our links henceforth.

Update: Amanda is being allowed to go to her prom, take her final honors exam, and graduate with her class…but she is still expelled, and must complete her courses at an alternate facility. Anyone who can explain the logic of this result, which is less unjust but completely incoherent, is encouraged to do so, and clearly has a promising future in school administration.

 

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