Homemade Clocks and Other Zero-Tolerance Tales


If you haven’t already seen this, Ahmed Muhamed, an Irving, Texas 9th grader, made a box clock. (Or really, he took apart a digital clock and assembled it in a box.) He took it to school and because it looked so much like a box bomb, the school called the authorities and they took him into custody for questioning. And because his name is obviously Muslim, the country freaked out. Racism! Profiling! Why? Because other kids without Muslim names would never be subjected to such drastic measures over a simple misunderstanding?

As Robby Soave over at Reason writes—and what many mothers of school age boys can tell you—these sorts of incidents happen regularly under zero-tolerance policies. He has a list of some of zeroT’s greatest and latest hits. We’ve seen overreactions to everything from toy guns to kiss dares.

I have an 11-year-old boy, so I have a story, too.

In 4th grade, when my son was just nine years old, the teacher assigned homework on the first day of school. My son made a “just kill me now” quip. Actually he said, “Great. Maybe I’ll go hang myself.” Rather typical smart-alec-kid fare, which my husband later noted would likely have been greeted back in his school days with an equally smart-alec and mildly disapproving comeback from the exasperated teacher. That would have been the end of it.

But two years ago, this did not end with an exchange of quips. The drama took over a week to play out.

I did not hear of the incident until my furious child got off the bus. Per district policy about statements of self harm, the teacher had reported him to the counselor. He’d spent much of the day with counselors and administrators. I got the notice call while he was telling me what happened. Over the next few days he had to sign a “no harm” contract and write out a dozen ideas of better ways to vent frustration. “Bite a pillow” was one.

The worst part of it all was a few days later, after the anger, embarrassment, and wasted time, when he started to get depressed. If his comments had prompted so much distress from the school, was there really something wrong with him, he worried. It took a few chats over a few days to settle his distress.

For the record, I understand the need for vigilance. I would have welcomed a call from the teacher or counselor after his snark asking if there were any extra stresses or other indicators of mental health issues going on during the summer. They couldn’t know. It was the first day of school. As it happened, a few weeks later, the teacher told me that now that she knew him better, she never would have worried. They ended up having a great year together. I also didn’t mind anyone telling him off for inappropriate jokes. I did.

But the zero-tolerance panic policies (born out of fear) forced the teacher’s hand. And the solutions the policies dictated actually created the very emotions they were designed to catch. Since then, whenever I read through stories about the increasing rates of male suicide, I can’t help but wonder if some of our fixes are really giving the real problem a boost.

Zero Tolerance, creating the problems it is supposed to solve and compounding problems we already have. Institutional bureaucracies, for the win.