Zero Tolerance and the Criminalization of Compassion

Zero tolerance: the design specification that demands complete, destructive failure of a machine or system if it experiences deviation from 100.0% adherence to optimal operating condition.

Between 1993 and 1994, I was in City Year Rhode Island. It’s centered in Providence, which is a city with a complex reputation.

My team was brought in as teaching assistants to several middle schools, and we’d be there for a month or so. The experience was part of why I began teaching. I wish I could say it was because I was inspired by the educational process, but that would be a lie. The schools reliably worked against the teachers doing their best  in the favor of senior, burnt-out — or simply cruel — teachers who considered the schools to be an important stepping stone on the way to sending their students to prison.

In one school, (My memory of the location yields a school that looks different than the one I thought was there, so I can’t say which one it was), there was a little boy who was clearly considered a “problem child”. He was distracted, aggressive, angry, and small. You know: the symptoms of lead poisoning resulting from landlords never ameliorating paint. He was sent to the office of some authority a couple of times in the few weeks I was there, but, finally, one day, he committed a serious, violent crime: he wore a watch the shape of the end of a revolver cylinder.

This kid, who regularly got in trouble for shooting rubber bands and not paying attention to memorizing state capitals, was sent home because he was carrying a weapon. He was utterly, completely baffled. He tried to stammer some sort of defense, but couldn’t understand what was happening. He was not a defendant accused of a crime. He was a criminal convict in My First Kafka.

What had happened is that, to make the kids safe, it had, like many schools, adopted a “zero tolerance” policy that sought to eliminate violent children from school. Consider that construction: it gave everyone exactly one warning, and then expelled children who were expressing behavior that indicates desperation. This kid started off in bad shape, with what looked to me to be neurological damage and a desperately poor family, and the school found a way to simply make him not their problem, then patted itself on the back.

These classes, I should note, were regularly filled with 20 to 30 kids. The acoustics were perfectly designed to induce echoes and abolish coherent thought. The school was founded, we were told, to enable segregation among Providence school districts in the 1920s. So 70 years later, it was still doing its job while finding ways to reduce costs.

There are a lot of positive things going on in schools. The teachers at those Providence institutions who found ways to avoid the system in order to teach are heroes to me. They poached students from other teachers who were happy to see them go. They used their personal resources to support kids and stayed after to chat when kids were reluctant to go to lunch or their next class. They stayed on top of the kids’ pop culture so they had a common language.

So the following story, emailed to me after I published Guns, didn’t surprise me. The emailer is someone I know. He’s a compassionate, kind person who is actually younger than the kid in my above story is now. I think about that kid, now almost 40 years old, and how his life has gone, how he was served by the school that he was first forced to go to, then forced to leave for failing to satisfy its mercurial demands.

There’s something important I need to note here: the email you’re about to read is from a white person. The purpose of “zero tolerance” is to treat all kids, no matter their race, gender, or other distinguishing features, with equal callous disregard. But we know how that goes. I’m happy that the emailer is alive because the world is better for his existence. I can only hope that my 13-year-old student, over the intervening 26 years, has been able to focus his rage and confusion into making himself well in the face of his abusers as well as the contributor below.

Emphasis is mine.

Hey, Joshua.

Your article on kids and guns hit pretty close to home with me, and I feel compelled to share my own experiences with you, and to encourage you to keep being an asset to those kids. Mishandling this stage of their development can have drastic impacts on their self-esteem and self-evaluation of their priorities into adulthood. Personally, I’m slowly and painfully reclaiming the interests that public schools made an effort of exorcising from me at the word go.

For a kindergarten show and tell, I brought in a spent 20 gauge shell hull and the slug my brother pulled out of a deer he’d taken that fall. It represented his patience, skill, and endurance, to me. I was so proud of him, my family was ecstatic about this milestone in his coming of age, and I wanted to share that excitement with my classmates so badly. When we sat in the circle I brought out my little plastic sandwich bag my mother had provided and started explaining what it was and how it had been used. My teacher quickly confiscated these totally inert, harmless items with no explanation and pulled me from the class. After an “emergency meeting,” pulling my single mother from work, I was sent home early as punishment. Nobody ever explained to me why. I wasn’t aware of it, yet, but I was now marked.

In subsequent years, my free time at school was strictly policed. If I used my journal periods to recount how my junior marksmanship classes were going, I was counseled. If I sketched some wild new firearm on school paper, I was disciplined. No matter that they were of technical manual quality by age 9, or if I had aspirations of becoming a gunsmith like my deceased father. It was now 1999, and my school had adopted a zero tolerance policy of largely undefined “images or words of violence” to protect its children in the wake of national tragedy. The teachers knew to watch me carefully, and take every opportunity to cleanse me of these behaviors. To this day, sitting down to draw fills me with so much stress and conflict, I generally avoid it.

Children learn quickly, and absolutely internalize concepts adults take for granted as beyond their scope. My classmates knew the teachers treated me differently, suspiciously, and naturally adopted it in various ways. Some would follow suit, distrusting or being quick to report every behavior, others taking advantage by blaming or instigating conflicts knowing that I would be punished, especially if I stood up for myself. The bullying was intense, and teachers consistently dismissed or ignored it. 

One day, I dropped the nuclear bomb. “This is probably why kids shoot up schools,” I mused to one particular disciplinarian. I was 10, and was convinced that if the rest of my life would be subject to this level of scrutiny and abuse, I didn’t want to live. It took years of clumsy counseling, multiple different schooling options, and several failed attempts to medicate something that wasn’t broken before even I could see what had caused all that chaos.

20 years later, you’ve summarized a majority of what would have been most valuable in those delicate years. Reading it brought me to tears. Reinforcing the importance of consent and collaboration instead of alienation; educating in the sources and impacts of violence instead of accommodating it; harnessing and nurturing an interest or passion instead of sterilizing it; in as much as you can control, your understanding is instrumental in making sure “the kids are alright.” Thank you for treating that with the care and responsibility of anything so powerful.

With love,