Friday, February 03, 2006

Is "Zero Tolerence" Going Too Far?

There have been some widely publicized cases where "threats" against President G.W. Bush have investigated by the Secret Service and been found wanting of any actual credible intent or ability to harm.We now have another (see Threats by a boy, 13, start a probe), where a Rhode Island seventh-grade, middle-school student, assigned to write an essay describing a "perfect day," turned in one where he described that he wanted to hurt President Bush and kill celebrity Oprah Winfrey.
"The boy, school officials said, had written an assigned class essay saying that his idea of a perfect day was to hurt President Bush, kill the popular talk show host, and harm executives of Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart. He did not threaten teachers or students"
  • - After turning in the essay, his teacher alerted school administrators,

  • - School administrators alerted local police

  • - Local police alerted the Secret Service

  • - The Secret Service sent two agents to question the boy and school personnel
It doesn’t appear that the Secret Service will treat it as a credible threat.

The local police think it was a stupid essay, but apparently not a credible threat.

It looks like the school administrators have been caught in the trap of the “zero tolerance” panic.

Zero tolerance for weapons or drugs means a 3rd-grader making a “gun” out of two sticks makes headlines and if a mother sends her child to school with an OTC cold remedy she’s in trouble with the school board.  Zero tolerance for “insecure items” and weapons on aircraft resulted in confiscation of nail clippers and expressed breast milk to be treated as a potential poison.

In this case, it’s zero tolerance for “threats.”  In the post-Columbine era, any kind of “threatening speech,” itself very broadly defined, is treated as if the student had just walked into the school gym with an Uzi and a hand grenade.

Yes, events such as what has happened at Columbine High School, and other venues across the country, has shown that the programs in place to warn of immediate violence and prevent the intense bullying and purposeful degradation by students against other students that may predispose  into that violence were inadequate, or just outright absent, or the degradation was ignored as “kid stuff” and allowed to continue.

But the resulting atmosphere was one where anything that didn’t fit the “normal” profile had to be treated as an immediate and credible “threat” against life and property,. no matter how incredible the scenario really would be.

On a wider perspectiver, the treating of a speculative essay as a manifesto brings to the fore very real questions about what is, and is not, protected speech.  Is anytime that someone writes that the President should be taken out behind the woodshed and “given a hiding” going to be subject to scrutiny by the federal government?  How far do we lower the bar?  How about if someone writes that G.W. Bush should be tried for war crimes?  Or that a sitting Supreme Court Justice should either die outright or be poisoned?

We have already seen that a political cartoonist can be investigated if they draw a cartoon that reprises the RVN intelligence officer execution of a VC suspect, but with the president in one of the roles, and an art exhibit where a faux postage stamp with G.W.’s visage being threatened were both investigated as “possible threats,” when they were actually political speech, and from both ends of the political spectrum.

Whatever happened to individual analysis and the flexibility, and common sense in reaction?
In the case of the 13-year old, wouldn’t the more sensible path be that the essay should have been discussed with the student first, to help the student clarify for himself if the scenario was really what would make a “perfect day,” or if there would be anything that the student might actually *do* to effect the described situation, or if it was purely wishful thinking?

Instead, what could have been an avenue for discussion and self-discovery turned into interviews with the police and Secret Service, and a potential further chilling of the right of free speech.  

I understand with my whole heart that school boards and parents do not wish any repeats of the violence that has happened at some of our schools, but policies that allow for no flexibility or rational choices don’t seem to be what is called for.

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