“A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither.”
You’re not going to see Drug War movies like Traffic made about Ryan Huntsman. He’s not a hotshot local drug dealer or anyone’s fortunate son or some kind of dudecharacter. He’s just an O.C. regular — a white kid from Newport Beach, now attending UC San Diego — who thought he had a little slack. In fact, he’s the kind of person being hit hard by the realities of America’s infatuation with zero tolerance: an ordinary kid who makes ordinary mistakes.
In February 1998, when Huntsman was a senior at Corona del Mar High, he headed out to run some after-school errands for his mom. The Newport Beach police stopped him for blasting the Grateful Dead out of his pickup truck, and during a search of the truck officers found a pipe and a baggie containing remnant amounts of marijuana. There wasn’t even enough for a ticket. Huntsman was free to go.
The cop who made the search, however, reported his findings to the high school authorities, and that is where Huntsman’s nightmare began. The school could make consequences where the law could not. Like thousands of school districts across the country, Newport-Mesa Unified has a zero-tolerance prohibition against drug paraphernalia on school grounds, at school functions, or even driving to or from school. No matter that Huntsman and his mother both asserted that he wasn’t going to or from school. Huntsman was suspended. The kicker was that when the suspension ran out, he was no longer welcome at school, so he was transferred to Newport Harbor High. He had no right of appeal, and the decision was final and effective immediately. It was only 89 days until graduation.
Huntsman’s bust landed him on the frontlines in what has become a national war over school discipline and, more broadly, our determination to make hard-line moral choices in an increasingly complex culture. Like hundreds of other students, he found out that school officials could not care less about his character, or the legal right to due process, or about the notion of intent. Since 1994, when Clinton signed the Gun Free Schools Act and zero tolerance became a grade school byword, cases of excess have become almost mundane. There were the two Dayton, Ohio, eighth-graders, Erica Taylor and Kimberly Smartt, expelled in 1996 for taking Midol for menstrual cramps. Or the 7-year-old Queens, New York, boy charged that same year with sexual harassment and suspended from the second grade for kissing (after being invited) a female classmate. Or the infuriating case of Wiley, a deaf boy recently expelled from a junior high in Canton, Texas; he was threatened with criminal prosecution for playing with a piece of small-caliber ammunition found on his playground, even though school officials had found the same ammunition there the week previous and never reported it to parents. Or the case of Brad Monroe, expelled last fall from Edison High in Huntington Beach, California, after school officials searched his truck and found a small pocket knife left there by his older brother, a city lifeguard.
These are just kids, and they’ll probably recover from their encounters with intransigence. But zero tolerance is more than just a tough-sounding quick fix for schools. Over the last 15 years, it has become the way we deal with ambiguity. Zero tolerance solves the problem of humanity by removing the human from the problem: It’s a kind of colorless, odorless solution in which all moral quandary is dissolved — not by deliberate assessment of intent or circumstance, but by rendering all such questions moot. It fuels a War on Drugs that cannot be won, that, indeed, doesn’t even have a definition for winning. It reduces interaction between the sexes in the workplace to a paranoiac limbo of connotation and silence. It prosecutes and jails needle-exchange advocates despite government findings that clean needles cut the rate of HIV transmission by half. It fosters the Peruvian policy of shooting down suspected drug-trafficking planes, which this year killed a missionary’s wife and infant child. It imprisons petty thieves for 25-to-life for boosting a package of AA batteries. It contributes mightily to the 2 million people in U.S. prisons (We’re Number One!) — about a half-million of them nonviolent drug offenders serving long sentences.
Combine fatigue with horror, and you end up with zero tolerance. It’s the product of fear, when the problems are daunting and conventional fixes don’t seem to work. Zero tolerance has made us hostage to paint-by-numbers morality, to political expediency at the expense of real lives and even the truth, to soundbites over sound policy. It has made us a nation of cowards.
Some people try to buck the trend. Carol Monroe not only sued to get her son’s pocket-knife expulsion suspended, but started an Internet support group called Parents Against Zero Tolerance. “The problem is that it’s a one-size-fits-all policy,” she said. “If a kid’s going to walk into school with a gun, that kid is expelled anyway. They don’t need a zero-tolerance policy for that.”