Tuesday, April 07, 2009

On zero tolerance

Or, when birth control pills are outlawed...

Okay, so the Washington Post shares with us the tale of a bold, insolent Fairfax County teenager who was brazen enough not only to bring drugs to school but to take one right there in the lunchroom.
When a Fairfax County mother got an urgent call from school last month reporting that her teenage daughter was caught popping a pill at lunchtime, she did not panic. "It was probably her birth-control pill," she thought. She was right.

Her heart dropped that afternoon in the assistant principal's office at Oakton High School when she and her daughter heard the mandatory punishment: A two-week suspension and recommendation for expulsion.

"I realize my daughter broke a rule," the mother said. But in an appeal to the school system, she reasoned, "the punishment does not fit the crime."
[my emphasis]

Yes, after consulting with her mother, boyfriend, and doctor, the girl decided to do the responsible thing and not join the ranks of the teen-ly pregnant by taking birth-control pills. She started taking them over the summer and, since you're supposed to take them at the same time every day, continued on the same schedule by popping one every day at lunchtime. Her impudence in not leaving her pills with the school nurse and taking time out of her already-short lunch period each day to trek on over and pop a pill that isn't worth stealing anyway as it has no more side effects than clearer skin and fewer menstrual cramps has landed her exactly where she deserves to be, which is to say, among the ranks of those who bring cocaine and/or handguns to school.

Had she actually come to school with meth in her bloodstream, she would have gotten a mere five-day suspension. Because she had birth-control pills in her backpack, she gets recommended for expulsion.
If she had been caught high on LSD, heroin or another illegal drug, she found, she would have been suspended for five days. Taking her prescribed birth-control pill on campus drew the same punishment as bringing a gun to school would have.

I know I've gone on the record somewhere about hating zero-tolerance rules in schools, but in case I haven't, let me make myself clear: I hate zero-tolerance rules in schools. I know they're super-convenient, and it makes it really easy to punish perceived wrongdoers without having to think about it, but it also makes it really easy to punish perceived wrongdoers without having to think about it. School administrators have plenty of jobs to do now, and schools are more overcrowded than ever, and new threats from the students themselves arise every day. But that doesn't free them of their ongoing obligation to administrate, to responsibly manage the student body and maintain order and discipline without throwing a kid with Advil into juvie next to the kid with a sawed-off shotgun and a meth cook in his bathtub. Zero-tolerance is lazy, and while this is as funny in my head as it is on the page, we don't pay our high-school administrators to be lazy.

It's lazy and it's nosy. It's schools demanding intimate knowledge of a girl's menstrual cycle because it's easier than trying to actually assess real threats to the student body. It's administrators strip-searching a 13-year-old girl on the mere suggestion that she had ibuprofen. It's a 10-year-old getting expelled for accidentally bringing a knife to school in her lunchbox--and turning it in to her teacher so she wouldn't get in trouble.

Now, you may well point out, and you'd be right, that the Fairfax County girl could have avoided this whole problem by not breaking the rule. And while that point is not offset by the fact that it's a stupid rule, the fact remains that it's a stupid rule. What purpose is served by forbidding Tylenol along with the naughtiness of Schedule II drugs? If cough drops are permitted, for consumption rather than distribution, what makes Advil so very much worse?
School officials say they can't take chances. They are concerned about liability and safety. Any pills, even nonprescription pills, could be shared with another student who has allergies. And it would be difficult to enforce rules if students were allowed to take some pills but not others.

"Most people would not know the difference between birth control or some Ritalin or Tylenol or codeine," said Clarence Jones, coordinator for the Fairfax school system's safe and drug-free youth program. "If they are just pulling something out of their pockets and sticking it in their mouths, we don't know what they are taking."

Why not stop there? Lots of kids are allergic to peanuts. Lots. So it's within the school system's best interest to make sure that no one brings any GORP for a between-class pick-me-up, since they might share it or someone might steal it and have an allergic reaction. Or strawberries, or dairy, since a lot of people are allergic to that, too. No strawberries in the lunchbox, no yogurt before band practice, definitely no strawberry yogurt anywhere, ever. And don't get me started on brownies that could be used to smuggle pot.

Or maybe just recognize that a kid who steals someone else's drugs and has an allergic reaction to them will learn not to steal someone else's freaking drugs and leave it to kids and their parents to decide who is responsible enough to wield a bottle of Midol or a Tweety Bird keychain at school. The school district says that the rules allow for appeals and hearings to address "special circumstances," but if they weren't so draconian, if they didn't treat cold pills like ecstasy because administrators can't be bothered to figure out the difference, they wouldn't have to bother. They could spend their time and energy trying to prepare these kids for college and the real world--instead of ruining their academic and conduct records with suspensions and expulsions for asthma inhalers and Aleve.

(h/t Feministe)

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