When “Zero Tolerance” Means Zero Logic

Schools work very hard to curb drunk driving, so when a sober student offers to drive an inebriated friend home from a party rather than let her attempt to drive home herself, no doubt any school would hold her up as worthy of emulation, right? Wrong, sadly, at least at North Andover High School in Massachusetts:

Two weeks ago, Erin [Cox] received a call from a friend at a party who was too drunk to drive. Erin drove to Boxford after work to pick up her friend. Moments after she arrived, the cops arrived too and busted several kids for underage possession of alcohol.

A North Andover High School honor student, Erin was cleared by police, who agreed she had not been drinking and was not in possession of alcohol. But Andover High told Erin she was in violation of the district’s zero tolerance policy against alcohol and drug use. In the middle of her senior year, Erin was demoted from captain of the volleyball team and told she would be suspended from playing for five games.

One of the central purposes of education is to teach students to consider the consequences of their actions. In this sense, Cox and her friend demonstrated greater wisdom than school officials. While the students clearly considered the potentially lethal consequences of attempting to drive drunk, school officials apparently haven’t considered how their “zero tolerance” policy might discourage sobers students from aiding inebriated colleagues in the future. As Alexander Abad-Santos notes at the Atlantic, “Cox did not break any laws; she did not drink, did not party — yet was still punished by the school. By reprimanding Cox, North Andover High is likely sending out a confusing and contradictory message to teens about drinking, designated drivers, and asking for help.” The Cox family lawyer agrees:

“If a kid asks for help from a friend, you don’t want that kid to say ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you. I might end up in trouble at school,’” said attorney Wendy Murphy, who is trying to help the Cox family get the school’s decision reversed.

These “zero tolerance” policies are too often applied with zero logic. They encourage bureaucrats to harshly punish students without considering extenuating circumstances, the student’s intent, or even common sense. They are the reason we see schools that suspend 6-year-olds for eating a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun or innocently using a camping tool to eat lunch, expel a student for taking Tylenol, suspend a student for wearing rosary beads (potentially a “gang symbol”) in memory of her grandmother, and even pressure a hearing-impaired 3-year-old named “Hunter” into changing the way he signs his name because it resembles a gun. Sadly, there are dozens of other examples. It’s long past time that schools abandon “zero tolerance” in favor of a more reasonable and proportional approach.