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There Should Be Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

My father enforced a policy of zero tolerance for bad behavior, especially when he lost his patience. If we were acting up in the back seat of our Plymouth station wagon, Dr. Gurza meted out blind justice from behind the steering wheel.

After several verbal warnings from our mother, who abhorred corporal punishment, our driver and disciplinarian would reach back over the seat, fish around for one of eight little heads frantically ducking for cover, then yank hard on the ear of the unfortunate sibling who couldn’t pull away in time.

This swift retribution was accomplished without taking his eyes off the road. The degree of guilt of the punished party was never at issue. In fact, of the 16 ears available, Dr. Gurza frequently managed to pull one attached to an innocent bystander, who then would scream from the burn, hand cupped to the side of the head, and cry to mother, “Pero yo no hice nada!”

“But I didn’t do anything!”

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That was a worthless defense in our militarized household where the real culprits often escaped unscathed. Punishment was one for all, and sometimes all for one.

Doubts about the wisdom of this crude, domestic discipline came to mind after six students were expelled for brawling at a high school football game in Decatur, Ill. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has led protests to reinstate the offending youths, all African Americans, catapulting a minor local incident into a national controversy over race and justice.

Residents of this blue-collar enclave are bitterly split over the fairness of the two-year expulsions, which were cut in half after Jackson protested. Folks are also at odds over the sensational intervention by the civil rights leader, who got himself arrested.

Race now colors judgments about right and wrong in Decatur. Both sides hypothesize: What if the students were white?

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Jackson never would have cared, one side answers. The punishment never would have been so harsh in the first place, the other side shoots back.

The real point, racial issues aside, is that we’ve gotten carried away with cracking down.

There’s zero tolerance for cheating in livestock exhibitions in Ohio and for not wearing seat belts in Illinois. Zero tolerance for kids who demonstrate dissatisfaction with rulings at ice hockey games in New York. And even zero tolerance for gloating at bridge games in Toronto, Canada.

To make a more compelling critique of disciplinary excess, Jackson should have picked a case involving a racially mixed group of students.

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I wish the reverend had been around, for example, when I got into big trouble with my buddies back in high school in San Jose. Bellarmine is an all-boys school run by Jesuits, who invented zero tolerance in the 17th century, I believe.

Our crime was attending a keg party at a mountain cabin. The public school kids did most of the drinking, I swear. But it was a Catholic girl who stumbled out into the black night and decided to take a dip in the pool. Since it had no water, she broke her leg landing in the deep end.

The priests started their inquisition that very weekend. They compiled a list of party-goers (we filled a classroom), and they ordered us to bring our parents to school for Judgment Day.

The final sentence: We were all suspended for six weeks, banned from our proms and from graduation ceremonies, ordered to write a paper on alcoholism, and forced to memorize an epic poem called “The Hound of Heaven.”

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I had always been obedient and done my homework. I rarely dated and didn’t drink much at parties. But my clean record didn’t matter. Nobody even asked if I had a beer that night.

Mitigating facts and circumstances didn’t count. And that’s the problem with zero tolerance, says John Palacio, president of the school board in Santa Ana, a district that until recently accounted for 40% of all expulsions in Orange County.

Before his election last year, Palacio used to fight the district on discipline cases as a community advocate. He argued that schools were ignoring exculpatory evidence, treating victims and their assailants equally, and unjustifiably labeling students as gang members, including his own son. He recommended giving principals more discretion and offering more alternatives to expulsion.

Santa Ana’s expulsion rates are down, says Palacio, more in line with affluent districts where parents are more likely to hire lawyers and fight back. But regardless of race and income, Palacio says, zero tolerance makes more problems than it resolves. In a 1996 paper, he wrote: “It has created a system whereby you are guilty regardless of the facts at hand.”

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Just like my father’s indiscriminate arm reaching over the front seat of the old Plymouth.

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Agustin Gurza’s column appears Tuesday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or online at agustin.gurza@latimes.com


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