A Word in Edgewise

By E.B. Boatner March 28, 2008

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Something makes me uneasy about the phrase “zero tolerance.” It smacks of every shade of right-wing extremist cant, although it is used with good intention—against school bullying, weapons in schools, and maltreatment of stockyard animals. But the phrase often is used with a kind of finality that implies it is in itself the solution, not a goal to be attained. The words offer a feeling of false security for the targeted. The aggressor will do A, and receive B as punishment: case closed.

Unfortunately, this is not the way the world works. Not all instances of bullying or cruelty will be perceived. Furthermore, zero is too total a sum for the human mind to manage. The natural reaction is to say, well, I can’t handle it all, so I’ll let this one slide. Or, hewing strictly to policy, one creates cases like the grade school youngster suspended because she had a steel fork in her backpack left from a family picnic.

In her forthcoming book The Compassionate Carnivore, author Catherine Friend, a Minnesota lesbian sheepherder, discuses the government’s zero-tolerance approach to animal handling in slaughterhouses. Regulators list 100 points, the violation of any minor one of which can shut down a plant.

Friend quotes Temple Grandin, internationally known for her pioneering work in safe, humane animal-handling techniques, who notes, “People can live up to high standards, but they can’t live up to perfection.”

Grandin has found over the years that slaughterhouses held to good standards always do better than those under zero-tolerance regulation.

Why not apply this thinking to school situations?

Obviously, gross physical bullying, harassment, and threats need to be stopped immediately. But there will be ongoing instances, not all of which will be overt.

Why not work proactively, as Grandin does when she inspects a facility, seeking to eliminate noise, bright reflections, open grates, and other factors that terrify cattle—and look at the social factors at work in a grade, intermediate, or high school. Spot key issues, and address them before a tragedy ensues.

Are you dealing with hormone-riddled teens?

They’re as easily spooked by gender and sexuality as cattle are by a shirt flapping on a gate. I probably know less about teens than cattle, but my guess is that mindful, trained educators and administrators can devise school meetings, group workshops, and activities to introduce diversity, to encourage talking with others, and to stress treating one another with respect.

Certainly, children of all ages, genders, religions, and ethnicity deserve the same mindfulness, compassion, and responsibility as we are striving to provide the creatures we serve on our dinner tables.

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