Monday, March 5, 2007

Zero Tolerance

This is more Old News that I didn't get around back when I first wrote it. Or you could say, since this post also deals with swords, that I was cleverly saving it until there was more sword-related news... Yeah... that's the ticket!

While violence in schools has been an issue for decades, once it became a middle to upper-class issue, there was an explosion in policies dictating "Zero-Tolerance" for weapons on school grounds. Some of these have bordered on the downright incredible, such as one widely circulated (and perhaps completely imaginary) tale of a child expelled from school for bringing a 1/6th scale toy rifle from a G.I. Joe doll to class. Whether true on not, such stories served to mark zero-tolerance policies as being "zero-thought," with school administrators abandoning any semblance of common sense in their attempts to craft one-size-fits-all policies with clearly defined limits.

The latest saga to make the rounds is that of Patrick Agin, whose story was recently picked up by the BBC. To make a long story short, Portsmouth (Rhode Island) High School, where Patrick is a student, decided that their no-tolerance policy against weapons on campus extended to yearbook portraits in which a student is holding a weapon. As is often the case with such things, a lawsuit was filed, the resulting media attention is going international and the school district is rapidly becoming a laughingstock.

As one might expect, the British Broadcasting Corporation wasn't the first major news outlet to pick up this story. A little over a month ago, it appeared in MSNBC. In that particular piece, I found the following information:
"According to the lawsuit, principal Robert Littlefield told [Agin's mother, Heidi] Farrington she could pay to put the photo in the advertising section of the book, but he would not allow it as Agin's senior portrait. [...] Littlefield said he thought there would be less editorial scrutiny given to paid advertising space, and that an ad would not be viewed as receiving the school's endorsement."
If you're cynical enough, you could see this as the school merely using the zero-tolerance towards weapons policy in an attempt to extort money out of a student in exchange for freedom of expression. Principal Littlefield's comments however, if accurately paraphrased (remember this is all "According to the lawsuit"), show him as being more interested in avoiding both the hassle of dealing with potential objections from the yearbook's editorial board and sidestepping problems with other parents who could see the school as endorsing the practice of hacking people up with swords. He was clearly hoping (in vain, it turns out), that Patrick and his mother would back down, and spare him the risk of some other parent bringing a lawsuit. While we'd like to think that no sane parent could possibly think that a student's choice of senior portrait would constitute a school's endorsement of violence, it's safe to say that Principle Littlefield, like a lot of other people who read the news from time to time, knows better. It was, more or less, a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't situation for the man. And while it's easy to look back on the fiasco that this grew into, and say he made the wrong choice - that presupposes that there was a right choice, and I'm not sure I'd bet on that.

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