Sunday, April 6, 2008

Sniffing out Zero Tolerance

One thing that truly annoys me in a lot of the “Stuph File” stories that I share on the air is the idea of some schools, primarily in the United States, that have a zero tolerance policy so unbending, it stifles the creative juices and growth of the very students it purports to protect.

Stories like the ones dealing with first graders who are expelled because their mothers packed a plastic knife in their lunch so they could butter their bread. In this post 9/11 world I can still cut my miniscule mystery meat on an international flight with plastic utensils, but a six-year-old is about to drive his entire campus into lockdown because Mommy thought he might like to spread his peanut butter with something other than his index finger (actually, other zero tolerance laws that include potential deadly food allergies, probably rates the peanut butter more dangerous than the knife!)

Let’s not forget the little perverts who are out there; overly affectionate seven-year-olds who for life will be deemed as sexual harassers on their official files because they kissed another girl on the cheek. You think I’m making this up? Last year, a boy in North Carolina was separated from his class for a day and kept from an ice cream party as punishment for kissing a classmate (I’m guessing he won’t be dating much in the future – and is destined for extensive therapy). The case drew worldwide attention – and ridicule. So you can’t bring anything to school, you can’t kiss anyone and heaven forbid should you sniff something!

Baby boomers out there who went to school in the 60s and 70s might have fond memories of “test day” in class. This was when the teacher would bring in newly minted sheets of paper, fresh off the Gestetner machine. Oh, the aroma was infectious! You would spend the first few moments sniffing your test before getting down to business and not once did any of the students slip into hallucinogenic trances or off into a coma. If these machines were around today most students and a few teachers would have criminal records.

The zero tolerance crowd must be ecstatic that the Gestetner era has gone the way of bathtub gin and schools are safe once again, now that the aromatic monkey is off the kids’ back. But wait; there is another scourge on the horizon as witnessed in a story this week from Colorado.

A school district there is defending its decision to punish a third grader for sniffing a Sharpie marker. Eight-year-old Eathan Harris was originally suspended from Harris Park Elementary School for three days. Brain-dead principal, Chris Benisch, reduced the suspension to one day after complaints from Harris' parents.

Little Eathan used a black Sharpie marker to colour a small area on the sleeve of his sweatshirt. A teacher sent him to the principal when she noticed him smelling the marker and his clothing. "It smelled good," Harris said. "They told me that's wrong."

Eathan's father, John Harris, says the school overreacted for treating Eathan as if he was huffing, or inhaling, marker fumes. "I think it's outlandish," John Harris said. "It's ridiculous." Eathan shyly shook his head "no" when a reporter asked if he knew about "huffing."

The brain-dead principal stands by his decision to suspend Eathan, saying it sends a clear message about substance abuse. "This is really, really, seriously dangerous," Benisch said. In his letter suspending the child, Benisch wrote that smelling the marker fumes could cause the boy to "become intoxicated."

For those of you who may be on the fence with this issue, I know what you’re thinking. Perhaps there is something to this and you can get high from a magic marker. Maybe that’s where the word “magic” comes from. Well, a toxicologist with the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center says that claim is nearly impossible. Dr. Eric Lavonas says non-toxic markers like Sharpies, while pungent smelling, cannot be used to get high. "I don't know whether it would be possible for a real overachiever to figure out a way to get high off them," Lavonas said. "But in regular use, it's just not something that's going to happen. If you went to Costco and bought 50 bags of Sharpies and did something to them, maybe there's a way to get creative and make it happen."

Surely the brain-dead principal would listen to the educated words of a toxicologist, but no, the school district leaders were unfazed by the poison control center's medical opinion. "Principals make hundreds of decisions everyday based on our best judgment. And in that time, smelling that marker, I felt like, 'Wow, that's a very serious marker,'" Benisch said. It makes you wonder what this clown was sniffing!

Instead of common sense prevailing here the brain-dead principal has gone to an even further extreme, promising to draw an even clearer line on markers. He has purged every permanent marker from the building. Now, isn’t that the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard? Perhaps Eathan’s parents should sue – in a joint case with the Sharpie company.

Meanwhile, Eathan Harris says he's happy to be back in school after his suspension, but he did confide he worried the school's disciplinary action might hurt his dream of one day becoming a professional football player. Wait Eathan. When you get to that point, you’ll have a whole host of substances that you can deal with. Until then, let’s hope your mother doesn’t use dryer sheets on your clothes, or the teacher might have to put you in the corner naked with nothing to sniff.

That’s the Stuph – the way I see it.


  1. As is the case with so many of our efforts to right the wrongs that exist, we go overboard. The "zero tolerance" policy came about as a response to the actions of school authorities who failed to take actions to protect kids from the abuses of young troublemakers. These Haight-Ashbury-era holdovers (45-year-old men with pony tails) refused to take disciplinary action against the students who, through their actions, might harm other young people. Instead of suspending or expelling the bad kids ... or - God forbid - using corporal punishment - they would give the kid a "time out" and then blame society or global warming for the bad behavior.
    Fed up with this stupidity, people who want to protect their kids from the troublemakers institute their own remedies - such as the zero tolerance policy - and we end up with yet a new form of stupidity - one that comes from the other end of the spectrum. It's a lot like mandatory sentencing guidelines in court. They came about because of lenient judges who refused to take steps to protect society from those who would do us harm.
    Newton's Third Law of Motion is: "To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Steve's law would be: "To every act of stupidity there is an equal and opposite act of stupidity."
    I'll sum up this comment with a 16th Century proverb often wrongly attributed to Samuel Johnson: "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

    - Steve Walsh

  2. Pshh, I used to sniff rubber cement all the time. I wonder if that's why I've got A.D.D.

    Oh, and according to the interwebs, the proper term used for describing that kind of principal would be 'Asshat.'

  3. Some ppl are born stupid.
    Some ppl attain stupidness.
    And some have stupidness thrust upon them.

    with apologies to Winston Churchill