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“Zero tolerance” sometimes makes zero sense

Okay, I get it. Schools are no place for weapons or drugs and the workplace is no place for chatting on a cell phone, but don’t you think all these “zero tolerance” policies are taking things a little too far as of late?
Take for instance, the Tennessee mom whose son is deployed in Afghanistan with the military and has been for the past seven months. Imagine her elation when her cell phone rings on the morning of February 14th while she is at work at Crane Interiors, a marine upholstery manufacturing plant in Woodbury. The caller ID indicates an incoming foreign call. Do you think for one minute she immediately recited the “zero tolerance” policy of the plant, which bans cell phone use during working hours “due to safety concerns within a production environment?” Well, according to her supervisors, she certainly should have because she was subsequently suspended without pay for answering the phone and was informed she would be fired if she were to answer another call while at work. Come on, really?
Another case in point involves six year-old Zachary Christie, who had just joined the Cub Scouts. He was so excited when retrieving his little scout camping utensil from his backpack to use in place of the school’s fork. Unfortunately for this young lad his school, like most schools today, have what they call a “Zero Tolerance” for knifes and because his new camping tool consisted of not only a fork and spoon, but a three-inch blade, it fell firmly into the weapon category. Little Zachary was immediately surrounded by angry teachers, who took snatched his toy/weapon/utensil and called the cops. Come on, really?
While every parent wants their child’s classroom to remain a safe place to learn, and certainly the little scout tool could have proved dangerous and should have been taken from the young child, is a policy so stringent that it is blindly obeyed without consideration of the seriousness of the offense? Shouldn’t the intent of the offending individual make a difference or perhaps the situation in which the offense takes place?
On the drug side, students have been expelled for possession of Midol, Tylenol, Alka-Seltzer, and cough drops citing violation of zero-tolerance, anti-drug policies. I don’t recall a report of anyone overdosing on cough drops, but stranger things have happened.
At any rate, it makes one wonder why these zero tolerance policies are even adopted. Is it perhaps an avenue for leaders to tout a strong stand towards safety, or is it an avenue that allows a universal punishment without any thought to the “crime” itself?
I believe zero tolerance should mean: “we demand a safe environment and we’re not going to tolerate weapons, drugs, violence, discrimination, etc.,” however, every case is not the same and stating the popular “zero tolerance” motto allows the luxury of not having to think. All that has to be done is to act, or in many cases, overreact.
Obviously, I am not a fan of the current zero tolerance policies being utilized in schools or the workplace. I do expect the distribution of school and workplace manuals highlighting rules and expectations and certainly agree there should be strong consequences to breaking rules; however, all manuals should allow for discretion on the part of leaders. They should be directed and authorized to bend a guideline when it makes sense and is in the best interest of the employee and the company, or the student and the school, whichever the case may be.
Certainly Columbine and other terrible tragedies have caused us to rethink our policies and rightfully so. Pre-Columbine, if a kindergarten student dared to bring a toy gun to school, the remedy would have been to confiscate the item, call the parents, explain to Little Johnny and his parents how this might be mistaken as an actual gun by someone; thus causing alarm. The conclusion would be to make the child promise to leave such items at home in the future. Fast forward to 2011, and the first call often is to the police and a school lockdown ensues.
It has been said when a policy becomes a bigger distraction than the problem it's meant to address, it's probably time to change the policy. While one size may fit most, one size most certainly does not fit all whether one is referring to clothing or methods of punishment. Perhaps it is time to let common sense trump zero tolerance.