Saturday, January 13, 2007

Zero Tolerance: Essay by Randy Cassingham

I have mentioned Randy Cassingham and his publications (This Is True, which deals with news of the bizarre, and The True Stella Awards, which deals with frivolous/wacky/stupid/insane lawsuits) a couple of times in the past, once with his reaction to PETA's having dumped euthanized animals in private dumpsters, and once (in passing) in commenting on two lawsuits involving McDonalds.

The current issue of This Is True (dated 7 January, 2007) returns Cassingham to one of his pet peeves, "zero-tolerance" polices, primarily in schools.

Zero-tolerance (or ZT, for short) policies are absolute, iron-clad, no-excuses-accepted rules adopted -- theoretically -- to provide safe, non-discriminatory educational opportunities for our children. Sounds like a good idea, right?


The problem is that there is no room for judgment, discretion, or even common sense. Sometimes, there isn't even room for well-settled legal precedents.

Cassingham discusses four separate and distinct "zero-tolerance" cases, and has an essay at the end, explaining his take on the matter.

Mr. Cassingham has graciously allowed me to reprint the cases and his essay. In his email granting me permission, he mentioned he usually does not grant reprint permission for such a large portion of his newletter; I am hoping he did in this case because of the serious nature of ZT policies, and their implications for the future.

My commentary follows Cassingham's material. Any formatting errors are mine.

The following material is copyright 2007 by Randy Cassingham, reprinted with permission.

DOG GONE IT: John Cave, 14, is deaf, but it doesn't keep him from going to public school. He even has a new specially trained assistance dog to help him. But that's the trouble: the W. Tresper Clarke High School in Westbury, Long Island, N.Y., says the boy "doesn't need the dog" at school and, when the boy brought the dog anyway, school officials called the police. Responding officers refused to arrest the boy after confirming state law says public facilities cannot bar disabled people from having service dogs. Still, principal Timothy Voels refuses to let Cave bring the dog on school grounds if he has the dog with him, closing the door when he arrives. "All I wanted to do was give my son one more step toward independence," says John's mother, Nancy. (New York Newsday) ...There's your mistake, Nancy: Zero Tolerance- subscribing school officials don't want kids to be independent, since that would give them an advantage.

ZT TOO: Ryan Morgan, 13, heard a rumor that there was a gun in the boys' restroom at Troy Middle School in Joliet, Ill. He looked and found a pellet gun in the trash can; he pulled it out and took it to the vice principal. The school's reaction to his heroic act? It suspended him. When his parents complained, the school board cut the boy a deal -- instead of expelling him, they ordering that he be home schooled. "I think the decision wasn't the best decision," Ryan said, adding he thought he did "the right thing." (Joliet Herald News) ...Zero tolerance isn't about the right thing, it's about not having to think.

[Unrelated advertisement removed]

ZT III: The La Vega Independent School District in Bellmead, Texas, suspended a student for "inappropriate physical behavior interpreted as sexual contact and/or sexual harassment." Sounds serious, but what did the student do? He hugged a teacher's aide, and during the hug his face was pressed into her breasts. The student was 4 years old at the time. The boy's father, DaMarcus Blackwell, went to the media, getting worldwide press coverage. In response, the school dropped the sexual contact references from the unnamed boy's file, amending the complaint to "inappropriate physical contact." The pre-kindergarten boy, now 5, has been moved to a different classroom at his parents' request, and the parents have filed a "level 2" complaint with the district to clear the boy's record completely. (Waco Tribune-Herald) ..."Zero" tolerance plus enough media attention equals "some" tolerance.

ZT FOR PEE PEE: After a confrontation with a 12-year-old at Danville (Penn.) Middle School, teachers summoned the principal. The principal "frightened" the girl, her parents said -- and she wet her pants. The unnamed girl is a retarded special education student. Her parents say she has never become violent, and has wet herself before when confronted by the principal. Still, this time principal Kevin Duckworth called the police and insisted they charge her with disorderly conduct. Embarrassed officers told her parents they could "probably" avoid a fine by having the girl perform community service. (AP) ...Her parents have already performed a community service -- by taking the story to newspapers.

[Unrelated headline removed]

THINK THE LEAD STORY IS an outrage? (Well, yeah, I know: they're ALL an outrage!) But here the school seems to think they're above clear-cut law, too. Sure enough, the school is NOT backing down. You'd think the principal's superior would step in and overrule, but district superintendent Robert Dillon actually backs the principal! He says the district "has taken the appropriate steps to evaluate this issue and has determined that the student does not need the service dog to access the district's programs" -- no matter what state and federal law says. The dog presents a "safety" issue, he claims, because of "allergy considerations" and "problems in navigating class and staff flow in the hallways and stairwells". So what's next? According to an update in Newsday, the New York State Division of Human Rights has started an investigation -- the first time in over a decade that the agency has instigated its own investigation without receiving a complaint first. A spokeswoman explained that just from the press coverage, it seemed obvious there was a violation of the law going on. Well, yeah. Certainly this isn't the first ZT case where officious officials don't just bluster, but even knowingly violated clear-cut law. I mean really: obvious discrimination against a retarded child?! And they think that this is OK, after years of VERY clear precedent in criminal and civil law that it's not? Clearly not, but we need to ensure they hear about it, loud and clear.

So what will happen? First, ZT will continue to get worse until schools get the message loudly and clearly that we won't let them get away with it. How does that happen? "By being fired" would be a great start, but as we see above, even their supervisors think ZT is a great thing. So then what? I'm finally starting to see a real backlash with not only lawsuits being filed (with a couple of examples reported on in this week's Premium edition), but WON by students. Sometimes it's just principle involved: demands by students to be reinstated to school. Other times the schools are paying *significant* monetary damages. It absolutely SUCKS that taxpayers have to pay out for the OBVIOUS mistakes of school officials, but if that's what it takes to get the message across, then that's what it takes.

But that's only schools. The Premium edition had a couple of non-school ZT stories. It's to be expected: when kids raised in a ZT environment grow up and go out in the world, they do what's so deeply ingrained in them at school: there is no gray, there's only black and white -- and boy, is it easy to get to the "black" side! When a photograph of a gun is thought to be the SAME THING as a gun, and punished accordingly, it can only lead to trouble. (Same thing? May as well bring a real gun, then!)

So yes, the problem will continue to get worse until there's a backlash not only against schools, but other institutions that think ZT is a good idea. Lawsuits against schools have started, and it's about time. Lawsuits against other institutions will surely follow.

Again, as I've explained on -- my still-needs-to-be-updated ZT page -- I'm NOT advocating tolerance for REAL transgressions. Kids who actually sexually harass other students (and you can be sure that does happen) SHOULD get real punishment. But a 4-year-old pressing his head on an aide's boobies during a hug IS NOT sexual harassment, and how does anyone think it's OK to punish such a young child for that? And there are plenty of other outrageous examples on my ZT page -- and in TRUE's archives. This MUST stop; we're destroying our children -- the next generation of teachers, cops, and judges.

Comments? See (Added attraction: the copy posted there includes useful LINKS, including to the two updates in Newsday.)

[End reprinted material]

Andrew618's Commentary:

I second Cassingham's closing comment [emphasis added]:
This MUST stop; we're destroying our children -- the next generation of teachers, cops, and judges.

...and Presidents.

Cassingham has commented on ZT many times over the years, and has devoted a separate web page to ZT policies (link above).

As a former police officer and EMT, I can understand the motivation behind ZT policies in general - you should never drive drunk, you should never kill another human being, etc -- but, like Cassingham, I can also point out the absurdities that generally accompany ZT, especially in schools.

While Cassingham doesn't mention one aspect of the first case, I am sure his readers will: the implied violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the school's philosophy, since a deaf student may not bring a guide dog, neither would a blind student be allowed to bring his guide dog, nor an epileptic a seizure-sensing dog.

In its FAQ page for the ADA, the US Department of Justice has these comments [emphasis added]:

Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in all programs, activities, and services of public entities. It applies to all State and local governments, their departments and agencies, and any other instrumentalities or special purpose districts of State or local governments. [...]

A state or local government must eliminate any eligibility criteria for participation in programs, activities, and services that screen out or tend to screen out persons with disabilities, unless it can establish that the requirements are necessary for the provision of the service, program, or activity. The State or local government may, however, adopt legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation if they are based on real risks, not on stereotypes or generalizations about individuals with disabilities. Finally, a public entity must reasonably modify its policies, practices, or procedures to avoid discrimination. If the public entity can demonstrate that a particular modification would fundamentally alter the nature of its service, program, or activity, it is not required to make that modification.

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has this on their web page:

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which took effect July 26, 1992, prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment. An individual with a disability is a person who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Has a record of such an impairment; or
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.
Granted, the EEOC is concerned with employment issues, not public schools, but the definitions of disabilities are consistent with those listed in virtually ADA reference.

Obviously, depriving a deaf person -- especially a child -- of a highly-trained guide dog would "substantially [limit] one or more major life activities." It could also expose the child to a substantial risk of death or injury in the event the school had to be evacuated.

It's been decided time after time that schools -- especially public schools -- are, in fact, subject to the requirements of the ADA.

The same "zero-tolerance" philosophy was applied to drug laws thirty years ago, with New York State being the most notorious. We've seen how well that works: we now have horrifically overcrowded jails and prisons, with many of the inmates being convicted under zero-tolerance laws of possession of such small amounts as to be ludicrous. We've also had situations where someone holding a relatively small amount of drugs shot at cops to avoid long prison terms for "personal use" quantities. We have people doing life in prison under "three strikes" laws... when the third felony was shoplifting food for the family.

Unfortunately, the real world is not "black and white", as some would have us believe; there are always shades of gray.

Cassingham, in his various publications, does an excellent job, week after week, bringing these cases to light. If you do not read his newsletters, you should. There are free editions and "premium" editions (more stories, no advertisements); if at all possible, you should subscribe to the Premium editions (mea culpa, I have yet to do so myself...). There's something for just about everyone. I hope he doesn't mind my listing his various sites [from his email signature]...
Plus, as mentioned above, he has a blog:

If you decide to subscribe to his newsletters, please enter "" in the "How did you hear of us" box. Not that I get a commission or anything; I'm just hoping all my readers become his readers too!

Again, I would like to thank Mr. Cassingham for allowing me to reprint his material.

A propos of absolutely nothing, Cassingham mentioned a while back that he was in the process of recertifying as a paramedic. He's also a former Search and Rescue Team member, so wish him luck and safety.

1 comment:

  1. Our local elementary school just went zero tolerance this year. What's happening to my daughter isn't as extreme as some, but it shows how the innocent are victimized by the lack of common sense zero tolerance demonstrates.

    My nine-year-old daughter has been trying to work through school-related stress, resulting in acting out in class. She told me that upset over a poor show on an interim report, she was surrounded by her concerned classmates and couldn't get away to practice her usual calming techniques. She yelled to be left alone, and after doing that several times, she was told to get her things and leave the room to wait for me. I picked her up with no contact from the a school authority, and nothing about the incident.

    I received a call from her principal two hours later that a classmate had reported she had threatened to kill someone. My daughter is suspended until they can conduct a "Threat Assessment".

    My daughter denies it. I mentioned that to the principal, and he essentially stated that kids lie. So my daughter's statement has no weight for that reason while her accuser's does, even though they're the same age.

    As a result, my daughter, who was already dealing with emotional issues regarding school and wouldn't hurt a fly, cried herself to sleep and is now scared to go back even if allowed to because someone else might tell on her and get her in trouble.

    I'm very glad these procedures are in place to protect all the other children - I'm sure that makes it worth the trauma an innocent nine-year-old girl had to go through.