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Zero tolerance adds up to nothing

Posted: Tuesday, January 04, 2000

Could we begin this millennium with a policy that offers kids something more than ``zero tolerance''?

Zero tolerance began as a popular promise of punishment for any student who brought the streets into the schools. There would no leniency - that's zip, nada, zero - for violence, drugs, weapons. One strike and you're out.

Gradually, the name became all too accurate. Zero tolerance for misbehavior evolved into zero tolerance for kids themselves.

We've developed an attitude - and not just in schools where zero tolerance often translates into a quick and dirty way of kicking kids out. We're in a time of a general crackdown - a tough love without the love. Zero is now a symbol of bankruptcy.

In Maryland, we just learned again that the much touted boot camps for young offenders easily turn into abuse camps. The idea that you can straighten kids out by beating them up has been continually discredited without being abandoned.

Next week, we'll hear again about two Virginia fifth-graders who allegedly put soap in their teacher's water. The pair weren't given detention, mind you, they were charged with a felony. One plea-bargained this ``crime'' into a misdemeanor. The other comes up for a hearing on January 10.

We'll also hear from the 18-year-old Floridian who threatened a Columbine High sophomore over the Internet. On January 11, Michael Campbell will be in a Colorado court. A month after his father's death from cancer, the student sent an AOL message saying he was going to ``finish what begun'' at Columbine. Now he faces five years in prison.

On the same day, in Illinois, a court will rule on whether six Decatur students, originally expelled for two years after a stadium brawl, were denied a fair hearing. Jesse Jackson contends that this ``zero tolerance'' is applied with lopsided mathematics to minorities.

And to complete the picture, in Granite City, Illinois, and in 20 other school districts, grown-ups are putting their millennial hope into fancy new software to ``profile'' students. They are playing 20 questions to predict which students are likely to become violent.

These are not just random anecdotes; they're dots that connect into a trend. As the stories pile along, says Jim McComb, an opponent of boot camps and director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, ``You've got to scratch your head and say, `What's going on here?'''

At the turn of the last century, we were building juvenile courts and treating troubled teens as people with a better future. Now, we are lowering the age at which children can be tried as adults - in Texas, it's 14 - and throwing away the key. Marcia Lowry, a children's rights lawyer, puts it this way: ``I am seeing a lot of willingness to give up on kids at an early stage.''

I'm not suggesting that troubled teen-agers are misunderstood angels nor am I dismissing the genuine fear that has spread out from the school shootings. Having ignored a trail of clues left by two suicidal murderers, it's no wonder that nervous Colorado officials take one online threat as if it were the real thing.

Jesse Jackson, for that matter, may not have picked the right boys or the right incident to make his point. But he is right in zeroing in on intolerance.

Whether we're talking about kids who were arrested for putting soap in a teacher's drink, or a girl who died in a boot camp to which she was sentenced for shoplifting, or a teen kicked out of school because he took a troubled friend's knife away and put it in his locker, we aren't paying attention to the individual stories of individual kids. We're punishing them.

The two most searing stories of the past holiday season? One was about the small Memphis boy who went home from school every night to an apartment where his mother's body lay rotting. The boy was so isolated, so afraid he'd end up in foster care that he told no one of her death.

In a second and similar story, a 7-year-old Massachusetts girl who told a teacher that her mother had died, was reportedly scolded, ``You shouldn't say things like that.'' So the girl spent that night alone with the corpse.

I'm not blaming the school or the teacher. But the uneasy truth is that children are often tragically disconnected. The schools don't really know their lives; the communities are clueless.

Paying real attention to the younger generation is labor-intensive. It consists of connections and discipline, expectation and second chances. It's harder to talk with troubled teens than to profile them. But in raising kids, as a parent or a country, zero tolerance adds up to absolutely nothing.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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