Zero tolerance policies in the ‘Zoom school’ era are being ridiculously enforced
  • Even in the “Zoom school” era, “one strike and you’re out” remains the rule of the game.
  • Your home and your social-media accounts are under your school’s jurisdiction.
  • Zero-tolerance policies led to expulsions for grade schoolers, grad students, and even teachers.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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In our pandemic reality, whether you’re a grade schooler, a grad student, or a teacher close to retirement — you’re now never not in school.

Over the past few decades, schools have increasingly adopted zero-tolerance policies on things like weapons, drugs, and bullying in school.

And as the physical definition of “school” has expanded during the coronavirus pandemic, those policies haven’t been granted a COVID exception — nor have any other policies prohibiting far less dire behavior.

In the “Zoom school” era, “one strike and you’re out” remains the rule of the game.  

But some recent stories have demonstrated both the absurdity and the cruel inhumanity of zero-tolerance school policies for online behavior both in “normal” times and particularly during this bizarre moment.

They got kicked out of school for what??

Anti-bullying initiatives have become a part of many schools’ codes of conduct over the past two decades. And to some extent, those policies made sense.

It is important for adolescents to learn that anything expressed online is essentially permanent. And spreading mean rumors about a classmate on social media is no less egregious than doing it by passing notes in Study Hall.

But then there are situations in which zero-tolerance rigidity makes no sense.

Like when a 9-year-old Black Louisiana boy was suspended from school for picking up a BB gun that had fallen on the floor of his bedroom, while he was on camera, taking a test.

There is no shortage of stories like this, in which toy guns or pellet guns are either in the background or briefly handled while on camera, leading to a child’s suspension or expulsion from school.

These kids are at home, living under the rules dictated by their parents’ discretion, and yet they’re being treated as if they pose a physical threat to their classmates.

And it’s not just students falling victim to the trap of violating school policy while at home.

A North Carolina teacher, who spent 15 years working in her district, was suspended without pay after students reported that she had been sneaking drags of a cigarette while teaching from a laptop in her kitchen.

The teacher told WECT News: “It was overkill for something so simple that could have been a slap on the hand … I was made an example of. I didn’t want to go back to school after that.”

And at a time when there’s a disastrous pandemic-driven teacher shortage, this longtime educator decided to use up her remaining vacation time and retire early.

There’s no doubt that smoking in front of kids sets a bad example and breaks a school rule, but the automatic-suspension-without-pay punishment was guided by a policy that didn’t anticipate teachers’ homes falling under the school’s jurisdiction.

It’s also not just Zoom and not just primary schools.

Kimberly Diei, a 27-year-old Black pharmacy graduate student at the University of Tennessee, was expelled for an Instagram post in which she wore a tight, cleavage-baring outfit and stuck out her tongue. It was an homage to the rapper Cardi B, Diei told The New York Times, and a personal statement of “sex-positive” expression.

It was the second time the university had investigated Diei for problematic social-media posts, both of which came to the school’s attention through an anonymous tipster.

A disciplinary board came to its decision to kick her out of school because it considered her “crude” and “vulgar” posts to be an affront to the pharmacy profession. She was given a mere two days to appeal her expulsion, and as is common on college campuses these days, she was not given the opportunity to defend herself — or even to hear what policies she had supposedly violated.

Diei was, however, ordered to write a letter reflecting on her behavior.

Thus, a 27-year-old woman in graduate school was treated like a 10-year-old forced to sit in detention during recess. 

The civil-liberties legal-advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education intervened on Diei’s behalf, and the school reversed course. 

But Diei is taking no chances. She has filed suit against UT to keep the school from investigating her social-media presence and to end the school’s vague and overbroad “professionalism codes” — policies of which she still has not been specifically made aware.

Zero tolerance is inhumane and impractical 

The thing about zero-tolerance policies, like mandatory-minimum prison sentences, is they leave no room for mercy or a greater contextual understanding.

They are meant to be so punitive that they stand as a warning to would-be transgressors. And intent does not matter.

That’s how problematic toys, women celebrating their bodies, and absent-minded nicotine fixes end up bearing the same penalties as violence, cheating, and harassment.

We ought to have learned our lesson about the abject failure and injustice that overcriminalization has done to our society, as well as to millions and millions of people.

But repealing “get tough on bad behavior” policies doesn’t win as many plaudits and advance careers as implementing them.

That’s why instead of looking at the damage wrought and deciding we have too many rules, enforced too strictly, we continue to double down with the hope that a more perfect world can be achieved if only we would punish ever-more harshly.

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