An example of zero tolerance gone awry
David Schaffner believed he was doing the right thing, the honest thing.
The 16-year-old junior at Fox Chapel Area High School north of Pittsburgh was attending a high school football game two weeks ago when, Schaffner later explained, he realized he left a pocket knife he had used earlier to help clear a wooded area near his O’Hara Township home in his jacket.
Upon discovering the knife, Schaffner took it to a security guard, mindful of Fox Chapel’s policies against having weapons on school property. In a just, relatively sane world, the guard would have acknowledged Schaffner’s integrity, put it to one side and handed it back to him when he exited the game. Instead, the school’s principal corralled Schaffner, tossed him out of the event and suspended him from school for 10 days.
This puts a stain on Schaffner’s record, but it could have been much worse – he could have been expelled for the remainder of the academic year, which would have upended his education and, perhaps, his life prospects, depending on his plans after high school.
Though the threat of violence in schools should not be minimized, especially in the wake of last December’s massacre of elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., common sense should have served as a guide in this case, particularly if Schaffner had no previous record of infractions. It’s not like he brought a grenade launcher to the game, and his memory lapse is entirely plausible. How many adults, after all, have been caught with handguns in their luggage at airport checkpoints and have used forgetfulness as a defense? And, in those cases, it’s left to local law enforcement to determine whether an arrest needs to be made.
They can use their own judgment.
In a striking contrast, administrators felt duty-bound to follow rigid zero tolerance policies in Schaffner’s case that offer little latitude or discretion when it comes to dealing with disciplinary issues.
A spokeswoman for Fox Chapel School District served up a connect-the-dots, “just following orders” defense to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “When there is a weapon on school property, we must follow the steps that are required by law. This is a responsibility we have to our community, students and staff.”
In other words, there’s no room for nuance. Officials are left to rigidly follow certain steps, as if disciplinary policies were holy writ that did not allow for the merest hint of sunlight or the slightest bit of deviation.
Zero tolerance policies were hatched in the 1980s in an effort to crack down on incidents of drug use and violence. However, they have come under criticism in the decades since for their inflexibility and have faced serious questions about their effectiveness. In 2006, an American Psychological Association report stated zero-tolerance policies sometimes failed to make distinctions between malicious intent and simple bad judgment among adolescents. The report’s chairman, Cecil Reynolds, a professor at Texas A&M University, pointed out that “zero tolerance may exacerbate the normal challenges of adolescence and possibly punish a teenager more seriously than warranted.”
There’s probably no better example of this than Schaffner.
Reynolds continued, “Zero tolerance policies ignore the concept of intent even though this is a central theme in American concepts and systems of justice.”
Schaffner’s suspension will and should serve as an example – not for his “misdeed,” but how zero tolerance policies can go awry when they are not applied with some degree of prudence.