Recently a young Colleyville middle-school student was embroiled in a controversy with his school district over a utility tool with a tiny knife blade that fell out of his backpack while he was at school.  The school district has a zero-tolerance policy on weapons at school, and district policy requires that all offenders be suspended and placed in an alternative school when caught on school property with a weapon.  


Despite intense media coverage and organized parental protests against the policy, the school district did not back down from administering the punishment doled out for such violations: a three-day suspension and time in an alternative school environment.


This sixth-grade honor student’s parents were outraged. They protested his punishment on the nightly news for the better part of a week. They were upset because their son had forgotten to take the utility tool out of his backpack after a weekend fishing trip with his grandfather, and they felt the circumstances should be taken into consideration. They were outraged that the school’s policy would be applied to their son, who clearly had not meant to intentionally break the rule. 


Watching this drama unfold, I found myself upset with the parents, not the school district. The attitude of unaccountability they displayed seems to me a symptom of a societal malaise that manifests itself well beyond middle school discipline. While it is unfortunate that the student’s scholastic record will now include his attendance at the alternative school, he will probably never again forget to check the contents of his backpack, an activity that strikes me as responsible and prudent. Kind of like remembering to remove the firearms from your carry-on luggage before heading for the airport.


However, because of the parents’ protests, the lesson the young man and his classmates learned was not one of prudence and caution. Instead, they learned disregard for behavioral consequences and the notion that accountability is for others.


That, sometimes, zero doesn’t really mean zero.


As a part-time instructor at a local university, I often encounter this attitude from my students. My syllabus clearly states the university-mandated attendance policy for my course, and the consequences for unexcused absences and work turned in past the due date. Yet every semester I face a student who doesn’t understand, for instance, why his stag-hunting trip to during the semester will not be an excused absence just because it is “the trip of a lifetime.” Or why a student who is flying home two days early for Thanksgiving break will not be allowed to make up the exam she will miss.


For some reason, students interpret the consequences I explained on the first day of the semester as pertaining to someone other than them. After September’s utility tool incident, I now see why they think so. I am confused by the parent protests this incident generated. When is zero-tolerance more than zero?


How can we not expect ethical debacles such as Enron and WorldCom to occur on a regular basis if we teach our children that the rules don’t apply to them? Seems to me that enforcing some zero tolerance on unethical behavior in corporate might protect innocent victims from the attitude that consequences for misdeeds don’t apply here.


Life is full of zero-tolerance situations, where intentions and motives are not an excuse for the resulting actions. But, I’ll have a hard time convincing my college students that the working world will require of them the same adherence to the rules that I. and the university do, if parents and corporations continue to expect that zero tolerance should mean more than zero in certain situations. Namely, when it is inconvenient for those who face the consequences of their actions.


I’m sorry that the young Colleyville student was suspended for three days and had to spend one day in alternative school and was probably subjected to teasing and taunts from his fellow classmates about his transgression. But I’m sorrier that his parents did him the disservice of teaching him that the rules don’t matter and that zero tolerance only applies to others, because his parents aren’t going to be there when the world’s zero-tolerance policies kick in.


What’s he going to do then?


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