Is It Really Wrong for A School Administrator to THINK?

Hi Readers — Here’s a iskrhfibkt
fantastic article
on the Cub Scout-with-a-spork story — the one where a 6-year-old was sentenced to 45 days in reform school for bringing his beloved fork/knife/spoon eating utensil to school. The article, by Mark Steyn (my former colleague when I worked at The New York Sun),  goes on to look at other issues of Zero Tolerance, including the girl suspended for bringing a knife to cut a cake, wherein school “spokesapparatchiks seem befuddled when asked why even their most basic human impulses no longer function.”

That is exactly the issue: What to do when administrators everywhere — from the schools to the hospitals to the airports to the courts — are strictly forbidden to use any common sense, empathy, wisdom or human decency? And they comply?

This article reminds me that I have to recommend, again, the mindblowing book, Life Without Lawyers, by Philip Howard, head of Common Good. His plea is for leaders to boldly re-assert their ability to make judgments. After all, that is what they are supposed to do — that’s why they are in positions of leadership! To constantly defer to one-size-fits-all rules is an abdication of their responsibility, which is to THINK and yes, to JUDGE situations using their rusting hearts and minds.

Why is it so radical to ask that humans act like humans instead of droids? — Lenore


43 Responses to Is It Really Wrong for A School Administrator to THINK?

  1. Bob November 11, 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    I love that approach. Criticize their lack of judgement by promoting their leadership. They won’t even realize they are being criticized.

  2. Jim Pivonka November 11, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    You don’t sound like a Libertarian to me. Libertarians will defend to the death the idea that Corporations are persons, with all the rights and civil liberties of persons. For our Libertarians, immortal, impersonal corporations are not creations of, and extensions of government power which ought to be subject to government supervision. They are magical, incorporeal beings, which must not be interfered with.

    That does not seem to be your position at all.

    Libertarianism in the US is a creation of, and in my view a wholly owned subsidiary of right wing oil billionaires; especially the Koch family of Wichita, Kansas.

    Regarding discretionary judgement by administrators: Formal treatment of the tension between judgement based on case circumstances and administrative impartiality based on the rule of law goes back at least as far as Max Weber. Presently it is complicated by the “C Street House” political philosophy, where a God Informed government under the control of men of wealth and power must be in charge of the mass of humanity; and the impulses and actions of the people must be controlled by laws, judges, and administrators who act vigorously to maintain that control. (Read Jeff Sharlett’s book for more on that.)

    The same people who are raising H about government actions in the economy today have been behind the establishment of zero discretion & zero tolerance law & social controls for decades. They have no interest in reducing arbitrary control over private lives; their interest is in increasing social control over individuals, while protecting economic powers from public control through government action.

  3. Maggie November 11, 2009 at 9:35 pm #

    “Zero Tolerance” is pure horseshit, plain and simple. It absolves the administrators of all responsibility for ensuring that the schools are even halfway safe places to be.

    Our district has such a policy. Two years ago, my son was assaulted at school by a much larger boy. My son sustained sufficient injuries to require a trip to the ER.

    He was suspended. He didn’t even hit back to defend himself, but he was suspended anyway, because clearly, if this other kid jumped him and beat the hell out of him, he must have done SOMETHING to provoke it.

    (We ended up having to take the little miscreant to court.)

    Now there’s a Zero Tolerance policy in my household – Zero Tolerance For Bullshit. My boys were informed – right in front of school administrators and “resource officers” that the gloves were off. They’re still not allowed to throw the first punch, but if someone hits them, they have my full-throated permission to lay the little bastards out. They may get suspended from school for defending themselves, but they won’t get in trouble at home for it.

  4. Brian November 11, 2009 at 10:03 pm #

    My high school was a “leader” in implementing Zero Tolerance, back in the mid 90’s. I remember my father basically saying the same things: That I better Never, Ever start a fight in school, but if somebody started one with me or my brothers, and I was going to get suspended anyways, then i might as well finish that fight.

  5. Tana November 11, 2009 at 10:15 pm #

    zero tolerance = one more excellent reason to home school when my son is school-aged!

    @Maggie- the same policy that suspends your son even when he doesn’t fight back teaches the bully that he can attack and hurt your child doubly- physically and by getting a suspension and all of the attending consequences attached to your son’s record. sure, the bully gets suspended, too, but i seriously doubt he or she cares. kudos to you for encouraging your sons to stand up for themselves.

  6. Vince L November 11, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    Maggie: Yep. Agree. Folks wanna have bizarro rules, guess what? My kids are going to follow them. Makes for interetsing parent/teacher conferences…

  7. bethan November 11, 2009 at 10:21 pm #

    @Joe – as a libertarian, I’m going to need to contradict your statement. As with any group of people, there are broad differences in thought. Libertarians either prioritize civil rights or capitalism with the laissez faire aspect emphasized. Corporatism is not supported, while appropriate oversight of corporations (within the rights corporations have been granted as entities) is. If one doesn’t like existing law, one should work to change it.

    Maggie – a good article 🙂 Bruce Schneier has a great article on zero tolerance, too … let me get the link

  8. bethan November 11, 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    Lenore – why did I call you Maggie? So sorry, and it’s because of my insufficient coffee intake for the morning.
    Going for a refill now. Sorry. 🙁

  9. Rich Demanowski November 11, 2009 at 10:34 pm #

    Dear Jim Pivonka:

    It appears that you are sorely misinformed about the libertarian philosophy. Libertarians are in favor of free minds and free markets; individual liberty and responsibility.

    Corporations, as they exist today, are legal fictions instituted to shield individuals from the consequences of their choices, so that the decision makers don’t have to be personally accountable for the actions of the corporate entity as a whole. They stand to gain from good decisions (e.g. bonuses for high earnings), but bad decisions only put the corporation’s property at risk, not their personal cash stash, home, car, yacht, etc. This goes against the grain of libertarian thinking.

    It’s the group-think mentality that stems from just such “corporate” thinking that leads directly to the one-size-fits-all zero-tolerance crap that Lenore is complaining about in this post – and I agree with her. Zero-tolerance is nothing more or less than a euphemism for “I want to be seen as a ‘leader’ without actually having to be accountable for any choices.”

  10. bethan November 11, 2009 at 10:42 pm #

    @Rich- thank you for the great comments on libertarians, and thank you for getting Jim’s name right.

    Seriously, I need to go back to bed.

  11. Rob O. November 11, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    Somehow I feel that the “let’s not allow people to think for themselves” dilemma is conversely linked with the “let’s not take responsibility for any of our own actions or inactions” problem.

    Personal accountability and responsibility are in short supply these days. Worse yet, independence & rationale are in even shorter supply. Oddly enough, there’s certainly no shortage of entitlement attitudes…

  12. Marion November 11, 2009 at 11:28 pm #

    From what I can tell, the “Zero Tolerance to Bullying” stance the local school adopted has done nothing to decrease bullying. Instead, it has decreased the amount of time dedicated to education, and increased the amount of time wasted teaching “anti-bullying” programs.

    The kids are still getting bullied, but the administrators feel like they have accomplished something. I don’t get it at all.

  13. bubbledumpster November 12, 2009 at 12:04 am #


  14. LauraL November 12, 2009 at 12:11 am #


  15. Helen November 12, 2009 at 12:28 am #

    From what I’ve read zero tolerance approaches came in in large part to deal with real or perceived discrimination. I think it’s a poor way to deal with it (and likely fails to actually do so), but attempts to get rid of zero tolerance rules might be better received if alternative attempts to deal with discrimination were proposed.

    I’m not super hopeful though. The lack of faith in school leadership and teachers’ discretion that the introduction of zero tolerance approaches show is kind of shocking.

  16. Mike November 12, 2009 at 12:37 am #

    “I was only following orders.”

    Cross-reference Nuremburg for what can happen when thousands upon thousands of people abdicate personal responsibility and common sense in favor of a rule book, or the Milgram experiment for what a person will do when an “authority” figure tells them that they must.

    Don’t get me wrong- I’m not suggesting that zero-tolerance and suspending kids for bringing a pocketknife to school is going to lead to genocide, nor am I equating it with the Holocaust, I’m just saying, people have done FAR crazier and FAR more unbelievable things because someone above them told them to do it.

  17. Blake November 12, 2009 at 1:29 am #

    @ Maggie
    “Hit back” was my Dad’s way of doing things. “Go to a teacher” was my Mom’s. Either way, I got hurt (punished for defending myself, or bullied because the teachers did nothing about it). Doing it Dad’s way-even my Mom was in agreement at that point-was what stopped me from being bullied. I was disappointed and angry to get punished for defending myself, but those morons who decided to cross me paid for it. I’m sure they went back to bullying again, but I, at least, changed. I take crap from no one now. Anyone who wants to challenge me in any way who is serious about it (friendly matches don’t count; those are fun!) is up for a challenge.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your family’s zero tolerance policy. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to implement something as such with my own family. If you haven’t already, I suggest teaching your children how to win arguments, as well, since their core beliefs will probably be undermined in the future. Probably by a teacher.

  18. John Powell November 12, 2009 at 2:26 am #

    Looks like the kid got a reprieve. The school board voted unanimously to modify the zero-tolerance rules for kindergarten and first graders.

  19. Steven Rushing November 12, 2009 at 2:27 am #

    I am not a big fan of zero tolerance rules, but I must say that there is an appeal to them, especially in today’s pc world. You mention THINKing and JUDGing, and the sad fact of the matter is that these are subjective concepts. Kid 1 brings the spork/knife combo to school, Kid 2 brings the 2.5″ pocket knife featured in your TED video of a few weeks ago, Kid 3 brings a Gerber with a 4″ blade and Kid 4 brings a 5″ steak knife to cut their lunch. Without a standard punishment, these 4 kids might get 4 different punishments. And then, god forbid they be of different races, suddenly you have a racial descrimination case, a lawsuit on your hands.

    That is the sad reality of the world we live in.

  20. Clare November 12, 2009 at 3:00 am #

    I thought for a minute there you were going to actually make me agree with Mark Steyn for once. But read his article and it quickly becomes more of his usual tripe after he dispenses with the free range issue.

  21. Wren November 12, 2009 at 3:01 am #

    I’ve always been against the mindset of “if someone hits you hit them back” but in the setting of these ridiculous zero tolerance policy, it makes sense. It’s unfortunate that these kids are being punished even if they try to be the bigger person and walk away from a fight.

    As a teacher I completely agree that cases of fighting, bullying, bringing items to school, etc. need to be handled on a situational basis, not by some rule that doesn’t allow teachers and administrators to use common sense and judgement. The zero tolerance policy is definitely a product of our litigious society, though.

  22. sylvia_rachel November 12, 2009 at 3:51 am #

    Although I agree that the spork and cake-knife incidents involved asinine behaviour on the part of the school district, and that “zero tolerance” policies are in general idiotic, that article didn’t make me like Mark Steyn any better. Every time I think he might have a point I can agree with, he descends into name-calling and racist invective 😛

    Why do Sikh kids have the right (in most North American school districts) to wear their kirpans to school? Because their parents fought for it (“fought” in the legal sense, obviously, not in the beating-people-up sense. The Air India bombers notwithstanding, Sikhs are in general just as reasonable and law-abiding as anyone else around here). What needs to happen here, IMO, is for the rest of us to fight for our kids’ right to schools without asinine zero-tolerance policies.

  23. Jenne November 12, 2009 at 4:01 am #

    When I was a kid, the policy regarding bullying was “Kids need to learn to work things out among themselves.” My parents, being teachers in other districts, were apparently too cowed by this to argue unless actual property damage was done.

    I’m afraid I would have been grateful for a zero tolerance policy that got me and the bully both suspended– me because it meant I didn’t have to go to school, and him because he would get punished. With the other policy, I just got punished twice; once beaten up and once yelled at for not ‘handling it appropriately’.

    I think the bad part of the kind of old-fashioned parenting approach they used then was when children were expected to work out conflicts themselves with other children and adults *even when they asked for help.* Fortunately, we don’t need to keep that going in our modern Free Range Parenting.

  24. David Buchner November 12, 2009 at 5:00 am #

    From what I saw, droids can make their own decisions, pretty well — sometimes, even heroically. So you’re looking for something down the scale from droids.

  25. Steve November 12, 2009 at 5:19 am #

    Hi Lenore,

    Great article by Mark Steyn! It amazes me that these administrators don’t seem to realize how stupid they look when they make silly decisions.

    My guess is that back in the beginning, when Zero Tolerance policies were first instituted, they “sounded” like a good idea to most people because everyone assumed the laws would be administrated by “adults” – people whose life experiences taught them how to use their reasoning capabilities.

  26. KarenW November 12, 2009 at 5:51 am #

    Steven Rushing – I would say in the examples that you give, NONE of the kids deserve punishment, unless they threatened someone with the knife or had ignored prior warnings about bringing those items to school. Yes, any knife could be a weapon, and I’m fine with schools saying that you can’t have them on school property. But there are so many perfectly good reasons for having a knife, that students might not always know that a rule is being broken. I think that all students should be allowed one mistake, again, unless there was actual violence or threat of violence involved.

  27. Matt November 12, 2009 at 6:32 am #

    I had a really disturbing conversation with a good friend at church a couple weeks ago over the Zero Tolerance/”camp utensil boy” issue. My friend is generally a thoughtful, intelligent person, has a couple of degrees in the field of education, and is a good mother of two kids.

    We were carving pumpkins with the youth group, and, with middle school boys wielding large knives, the conversation turned to Zachary the Cub Scout and his 45 day suspension/reform school sentence.

    I was flabbergasted when my friend began to defend the Zero Tolerance policies. She said that she would rather have the Cub Scout suspended than have weapons on the school campus–even if the weapon was actually a utensil for eating. She could not see how I could differentiate a knife intended for eating and a knife intended for violence. “How do you determine intent?” She asked. “Kids are going to lie about it, so how do you separate the innocuous knife-bearers from the criminal ones?”

    I was stunned and disturbed that someone I considered a good parent and educator couldn’t figure out how to apply reason and logic to fairly simple situations.

  28. Gavin Andresen November 12, 2009 at 6:56 am #

    Administrators can get away with cover-your-ass zero-tolerance policies because parents have no choice and the administrator have no incentive to use common sense.

    Imagine a private school saying to a parent “we’re suspending your daughter for 45 days because she brought a spork to school.”

    The parent would simply take their money and find a different school.

  29. David A. Bedford November 12, 2009 at 7:36 am #

    I agree with the sentiments of the article. What is needed is common sense and compassion. My new Young Adult novel, Angela 1: Starting Over, deals with bullying in a realistic manner, with understanding. If interested just go to my website. Thank you.

  30. s.d. November 12, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    People are so afraid of “looking bad” and being caught “breaking the rules” that they will go to absolute extremes to be sure it does not happen, because after all only the “rule followers” are “good people”, right?

    I don’t personally care what people think of me, and will do what I believe is right in raising my kids my way, or thinking for myself even if it is thinking outside the box.

    And it is funny how people question how I am “happy and in good spirits” all the time! Maybe it is because life is not a burden to me? Yeah, that must be it!

  31. s.d. November 12, 2009 at 10:25 am #

    I want to tell a story..

    A few weeks ago my son stayed after school with a few other kids to make up some work for Science. At one point the Science teacher left the room to do a few things in the office. Somehow, the kids’ conversation (a group of which my son was not a part of) leaned toward the subject of rape. My son finished his assignment, put it onto the teacher’s desk and left.

    A few days later the teacher approached my son OUTSIDE of the school, off the school campus, AFTER school, and accused him of making a joke of raping her. Indeed.

    My son told me what happened, I in turn e-mailed the teacher for specifics. Turns out this group of kids said that my son made some tasteless joke about raping this teacher. I questioned why it was not told to the principal or me in the first place, and fired off an e-mail for the principal to interview each child individually. Turns out one of the teen GIRLS brought up the subject of rape and which teacher the boys would rather rape, and that was how the group got into the subject, but indeed my son was not a part of it. I was impressed the principal got to the bottom of the issue without judging any of the kids before finding out the FACTS, as opposed to what this teacher did. My son now feels very uncomfortable going into this teacher’s class, and has asked to be transferred to a different class. His request was granted and, while I am unhappy with the way this teacher dealt with the issue, I am glad that he was giving a chance to defend himself.

    My point? The principal used her HEAD and wise JUDGMENT to make the call of what should/can happen, who the offending child was, etc, rather than just expel them all for such a tasteless joke. My son could have been branded for life with this false accusation on his record.

    All hail school admins with brains!

  32. kherbert November 12, 2009 at 10:26 am #

    Not all administrators refuse to think –

    1. Student was on edge because of something that happened with a sub (who was fired over the incident). Imp friend of his came up and yelled boo. Student reacted out of fear (was severally abused/starved by birth parents and split imp’s lip). Both parents were called given basic information. No punishment for either student or imp. Student’s doctors were told about the incident.

    2. Student went camping and came to school with a pocket knife in his bag. Student “turned himself in”. Principal locked knife in safe and called the parent to pick it up. No school punishment. Father grounded son for a month and made him re-earn his pocket knife because he was asked multiple times if he took it out of his backpack getting ready for school.

    3. Student being bullied punches the lights out of bully – then runs to nearest teacher. Student – no punishment Bully arrested for assault and sent to alternative campus. Not allowed to return to campus his victim was attending.

    Now they did suspend

    a 4 yo – because he put a staff member in the hospital. Seriously he threw multiple chairs at her, she was afraid to lay a hand on the child due to laws.

    5th grader for threatening a teacher with a BB Gun.

  33. s.d. November 12, 2009 at 10:27 am #

    P.S. wanted to add that this is the 9th grade.

  34. John Rohan November 12, 2009 at 11:06 am #

    Is It Really Wrong for A School Administrator to THINK?

    There was an episode of “King of the Hill”, where Hank’s son Bobby is suspended from school for bringing a putty knife to his shop class (after Hank had told him to).

    When Hank told the principal “that’s just asinine”, the principal replied: “I’m sorry Hank, but if I showed any tolerance, then we couldn’t call it ‘zero tolerance'”.

  35. susan November 12, 2009 at 11:43 am #

    Great site! Especially since I had a friend come up to me at a party & when I said my boy was off somewhere, he said, “you know, you are raising a free-range kid.” I was rather pleased. I saw an earlier article on this asinine kindergartener with a spork issue. I just don’t see how people (administrators, I mean) can be so….stupid! What other word for it is there? We have gone so far in a wrong direction. I studied martial arts for years & let me tell you, you can kill someone with a pencil. And it could certainly happen by accident, or they could fall wrong off the monkey bars & break a neck. or fall off the scooter on the playground & faceplant, requiring plastic sx. Why has common sense become so uncommon?

  36. LSM November 12, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    I find it interesting that this article leads to the assumption that all school administrators act in such a fashion—that students need to be protected from unreasonable actions by removing them from public school and sending them to private schools or choosing to home school. It reminds me of assuming that, because of coverage of the small number of child abductions that happen each year, we need to protect our children by watching them constantly and limiting their freedom.
    As a school administrator, I make a huge number of decisions every day that affect the lives of thousands of students. Often, these decisions have to be made quickly. While I can’t claim all are perfect, I work hard to make decisions that are in the best interest of those students. In addition, my Board of Education and superintendent completely support discretionary decision-making by administrators. Our board policy avoids absolutes when possible and even delineates the procedure for waiving those policies when appropriate. For example, our “weapons” policy provides a range of consequences which range from three days of in-school intervention to suspension for the remainder of the semester plus the next semester. During my time as a high school principal, I imposed penalties on both ends of the spectrum and in between, depending on the circumstances. I’ve also waived the penalty entirely in the case of a special needs student who brought a replica gun to school (a situation that just screamed to make the headlines if we’d gone a different way). Instead of seeking to punish that student we worked to help him understand the danger of carrying a “toy” that looked like a real gun.
    Outside of being a parent, serving as a principal was both the hardest and the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. And it’s definitely one that required effective critical thinking on a daily basis.

  37. Dino November 12, 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    You are right to mention idiotic zero tolerance rules in othe places besides schools.
    Last week I accompanied a young woman to the courthouse to seek legal custody of her child.
    I was required to remove my belt–would I be arrested for something if my pants fell down?–a young Catholic boy was required to “lose” the religious medal around his neck, and a US Marine was required to remove his battle ribbons. These items were classified as “weapons”. I asked one of the 12 police guards why. He said this level of security was necessary because the Juvenile Hall, next door, included a school.
    Wait’ll the public schools latch onto this!

  38. NJMom November 12, 2009 at 10:11 pm #

    This is a great article and expresses my point of view perfectly. I love that!

    And I would like to add…that I have served on two different school boards in New Jersey. In NJ, school boards have exactly two functions: hire the superintendent and set policy. Superintendents are hired because of their “vision” and then they work with principles and teachers to develop and implement their various programs. You could view board policy as the structural support for the academic community that is “school”.

    In New Jersey, anyway, the policy manual is (should be) fluid and flexible…it is constantly being updated to correspond to the latest state mandates, new technologies, or health issue, for example. The policy manual is a TOOL for the superintendent. It is NOT the law…

    So, any superintendent who says that he/she can’t do anything about an issue because it is board policy, is abdicating his/her responsibility. Every single policy in the manual (and there are a lot of policies, believe me) can be eliminated or updated so that schools can continue to be effective.

    Administrators who ignore this are simply very bad at their jobs and it is the children, of course, that suffer.

    And now my ultimate point, thank you for being patient: As I said, policies are MEANT to be flexible. Bad policies

  39. NJMom November 12, 2009 at 10:12 pm #

    Ooops! Ignore the last sentence and fragment….!!!!!!!!

  40. Clark Sprague November 12, 2009 at 10:12 pm #

    I had a long talk with a member of our local school board who was on the board many years. He said, School administrators absolutely love zero tolerance because they can avoid making judgment calls. For them it avoids
    1) dealing with angry parents
    2) civil rights complaints by one group or another
    3) Administrative simplicity
    4) Reduced litigation expense

    He went on to note that these reasons extend to turning all disciplinary action over to the police. Since parents are largely reluctant to sue the prosecutor and police than they are to sue the school.

    The lesson here is that judgment will not return to the schools anytime soon. It is so much easier for administrators to keep zero tolerance unless legislatures ban the practice.

  41. Into The Wild! November 13, 2009 at 3:59 am #

    In reference to ‘zero tolerance’, sometimes they get it right. Several years ago, my son (with high-functioning autism) was beaten up by another student in middle school, to the point where he was curling up in the fetal position to protect himself, but was afraid to tell anyone due to the fact that the staff responsible for watching out for this type of behavior during the lunch break saw it happening but wouldn’t help him (the “boys being boys” excuse). So he figured, why? the adults don’t care. If they did, they would do something the first time it occured. After several weeks, he finally told his sister, who in turn told us. The school district has campus police, so we contacted them, met them at the school and said we’d be pressing charges on the kid, who basically acted like he was the top dog and bragged to everyone what he did to my son, in that stupid gangster-like fashion. And get this, the school had no problem with arresting the kid, but wanted my son to be suspended FOR NOT TELLING THEM SOONER! WTF? (sorry) Here’s the kicker: the cop saw the situation for what it was, that the school wanted to wash their hands of both kids. He looked at us with a “just follow my lead” look. He got up and took the bully into another room, told him that what he did was against the law and put him in handcuffs. THE KID FREAKED! The cop looked at him and said “I won’t arrest you if you tell me you understand what you did was wrong, because you know it was. But I will come back here and arrest you if you ever go near this kid again or if I find out you did this to anyone else.” The kid did a 180, and never was a problem while my son was in that school, although the incident is in his school file. In fact, whenever he saw him, he’d run in the opposite direction. And the happiest person as a result? The kid’s mom! She said she never could control him, but just the possibility of being put in jail seems to have done the trick. The cop also strongly suggested that the school not punish my son, as we could have taken them to task (read: unwanted publicity/lawsuit) for not protecting him when he asked in the first place.

    *sigh* It’s true, common sense seems to be a dying art.


  1. November 12 roundup - November 12, 2009

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