Zero tolerance and sanity

Six years ago, an assistant principal in Arizona took leave of his senses and ordered a strip search of Samantha Redding, a thirteen-year-old girl, for Advil (ibuprofen). The victim’s suit against the school district is now headed for arguments in the Supreme Court in April.

Everything about this story is deeply nuts. First, Advil??!! This medicine has no psychoactive properties, period; no-one takes it for fun. And the toxic dose is enormous (unlike Tylenol), so there’s vanishingly small risk of any kind from Advils sneaking into schools. The only excuse for worrying about ibuprofen in this context is the lexicographic accident that drug in English has two meanings. Second, zero-tolerance? This is from the get-go a deliberate, intentional abandonment of common sense and judgment, a mindless, deaf-dumb-and-blind policy for politicians and petty bureaucrats to hide behind, created by the worst kind of cowardly lawyers enabled by bloody-shirt-waving Mayberry ideologues (and an excuse, as in this case, to abuse and humiliate children). My daughter the schoolteacher is forbidden to hug or even touch her kids, because it’s easier for bureaucrats to make stupid rules than to do their jobs. People, including kids, need to be touched and hugged; think this inhumane rule has avoided even a single case of real abuse?

The way the Arizona case should have unfolded is simple: the school board and the superintendent should have had a blinding epiphany that they had unleashed a monster, and fixed it immediately. Instead of zero tolerance for aspirins and Advil and plastic knives, the district should have zero tolerance for absolutists and authoritarian monomaniacs. The assistant principal, and everyone else at the school that didn’t have the sense to say “No! are you crazy?”, were obviously unsuited to have anything to do with kids, and should have been fired. And the supe should have gone personally to Redding’s house, with a nice batch of flowers, to apologize.

Instead, it just got worse and worse. With no apology or admission of error from the district, Redding’s family sued. The district decided to waste thousands of taxpayer dollars fighting the case in court, and the issue shifted to one of unreasonable searches rather than administrative malfeasance. Courts are totally the wrong place to straighten out educational incompetence, and litigation is ill-suited to guide public managers about how to do their jobs better.

It has now been six years, which raises another question: how on God’s green earth can it require six years to try and appeal a case this simple? Some things just take a long time and there’s nothing for it, like growing a tree and raising a child. But some things take a long time because the work keeps getting put on a shelf instead of being done, and that’s what happens in the courts; when judges grant endless delays and adjournments to be “fair” to litigants, the queues grow and unfairness multiplies. It’s flatly, radiantly, unfair for a citizen to wait six years for a resolution of an issue like this.

All in all, a perfect storm of serial failure, grownups behaving atrociously because a lawyer with not enough real work to do told the school district to embark on a policy of doing bad things B,C,D… because bad thing A might happen otherwise.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.