OP-ED: Who Benefits from Zero Tolerance Policies?

John LashI have been out of high school since 1984, and I realize that things these days are different. It was a time when kids were told to punch bullies in the nose (or the solar plexus), when I usually had a knife in my pocket (because that’s what guys did), there were no police at the school, and breaking a rule could get you suspended or expelled, but not handcuffed, and certainly not put in jail.

It was the time before Columbine, and the slew of other school shootings that have led us down the path of zero tolerance, anti-bullying, police officers in schools and the related criminalization of actions that would have previously been solved through school discipline. It was a time before wearing a t-shirt could get a kid threatened with fines and jail time, no matter what the shirt said.

That is exactly what has happened to Jared Martin, a 14-year-old student at Logan Middle School in Logan City, W.Va. The case presents an interesting juxtaposition of political viewpoints. Liberals, who typically come out in favor of free speech, seem to have been mostly silent. Conservatives, often aligning themselves with law and order, have been quite vocal. The reason for this mismatch of positions is Jared’s choice of shirt: an NRA theme proclaims “Protect your Right” and below is the image of an assault rifle.

This liberal-conservative dynamic is intriguing, but even more interesting to me is the involvement of police, and Jared’s subsequent appearance before a judge. As reported by a local CBS affiliate, he now faces prosecution for obstructing an officer and disrupting the education process after a judge ruled that the prosecution could proceed.

According to a Washington Post piece by Tiffany Madison, Jared had worn the shirt until lunch without incident. While eating he was confronted by a teacher who told him to remove the shirt or turn it inside out. The boy maintained that he was exercising his first amendment rights, and continued to maintain this with the police officer. He was arrested and removed from the school, then suspended. When he returned he wore the shirt again, and many students wore similar clothing in support.

By all accounts, Jared has not had any previous involvement with law enforcement. The prosecutor and police have stated that the case is not about the shirt, but about his defiance of authorities, especially the police officer. It is clear that in some ways they are correct, since so many kids have worn similar shirts since the incident. The teacher who initially chastised Jared seems to have overstepped his bounds, and the administration has reportedly said that the incident should never have happened.

The bottom line though is that Jared faces a criminal charge that could result in a $500 fine and a year in jail. Will he get these penalties if convicted? Probably not, but he will have a record, and today he sits under the government’s threat of sanction.

Jared isn’t an isolated case either. Similarly ridiculous stories have popped up recently, including a Massachusetts kindergartener who was placed in detention and forced to apologize for bringing a plastic gun “the size of a quarter” onto a school bus and a Baltimore boy, 7, suspended for chewing a pop tart into the shape of a gun.

This level of paranoia and overzealousness has surpassed the threshold of farce. Common sense has been cast off and replaced by an Orwellian adherence to zero tolerance policies that don’t serve to protect kids, but instead foster a culture of obedience to authority.

These instances are ludicrous, and we can mostly laugh at them in the assurance that they’ll probably go away. They are symptomatic though of a deeper trend in our society, of criminalizing (or medicalizing) behaviors that are normal. They are the shadow of the school to prison pipeline, and the slow militarization of our police forces in the war on the poor and the marginalized. We can laugh, but this is serious business.

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