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July 23, 2009

Draconian Absolutism

Tony Soltero

I remember when I was first looking for a place to live on my own. I checked out quite a few neighborhoods in the Baltimore area, and among other things, I noticed that every school proudly displayed a placard declaring itself "drug-free."


It was quite amazing – every incorporated city, every town, and every subdivision, no matter its socio-economic level, had miraculously wiped out its drug problem! Given that remarkable record of achievement, it didn't really matter where I eventually settled – all neighborhoods now featured row after row of Ward Cleaver homes.


Only, of course, that scenario was nowhere near reality. Those signs didn't really indicate anything more than a school's implementation of "zero-tolerance" policies against students who misbehaved. If a school implemented the policy, a school got to declare itself "drug-free" – completely independent of whether the policy, in fact, actually did eliminate drug consumption among its school-age population.


And given the almost daily reports in the police blotter about underage kids busted for narcotics possession, it was pretty obvious that these "zero-tolerance" policies were little more than an attempt to promote the illusion that something was being done about the problem.


Of course, like most brute-force approaches to problems, zero-tolerance campaigns often backfire badly, and usually wind up exacerbating the problems they ostensibly try to address. One issue with them is that they harm the innocent far more than they punish the guilty. And the Brad Young debacle is the latest example of this.


Mr. Young was ambushed by the paranoid hysteria that undergirds these "zero-tolerance" policies. In what logical universe is a private citizen's house suddenly "school property" simply because the citizen is holding an event in it?


But, unfortunately, this is the natural consequence of these quick-fix approaches to difficult, complex problems. And while Mr. Young did get a raw deal – and I hope he can get his position back – I also hope that his experience forces us to take a closer look at these brute-force "solutions" to problems.


The thinking behind "zero-tolerance" drug policies in schools is the same kind of thinking that imposes mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses; the same kind of thinking behind "three strikes you're out" laws; the same kind of thinking behind abstinence-only sex education. It's a lazy and ineffective way to approach a problem – but hey, it makes a political leader look like he's "serious" and "tough" about crime or teen sex.


And the effectiveness of these draconian laws never seems to get properly discussed in the media. Do states with abstinence-only programs feature lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies than states with more realistic curricula? (They don't, actually.) Do mandatory minimum sentences drive down crime rates? (No, again.)


So while we rightfully condemn the absurdity of Brad Young being relieved of his coaching position, let us not lose awareness that this is about much more than Brad Young. This is the latest instance of our love affair with simple brute force coming back and kicking us in the face.


When we implement a zero-tolerance policy in our schools, we're effectively saying: "We don't want to think too much about dealing with the complexities of student drug use. We're just going to bludgeon the problem and hope it goes away." And, inevitably, honor-roll students get expelled for bringing their allergy medicines to school. And respected coaches lose their jobs. All in the service of looking "tough.”


It's time to get away from this kind of mindless draconian rigidity. Human beings are capable of reason, of adjusting to the situation, of making proper assessments. It's time we discarded the lazy appeal of absolutism in favor of more effective and rational approaches to our social problems.


And then, maybe, our schools' "drug-free" placards might actually mean something.


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