“Outrage Addicts” are a peculiar set of amateur commenters, quick to express their shock and dismay about the latest offense against “common sense”, and eager to decry the bureaucrats or activists who wander into their crossfire. They thrive on disgruntlement and tend to view themselves as homespun geniuses of horse sense – if only the world would check in with them before acting, it would be a better, if less outrageous, place.
(As an aside, this group tends to be the absolute worst at fact-checking, though the very outrages they speak against tend to be those that cry out for suspicion. Thus, they send out their OMG via emails and blog posts on “controversies” that are almost always fictional or exaggerated. Thus, a suit about a religious symbol on public land mysteriously becomes an attempt to remove the crosses from Arlington Cemetery, and a product liability lawsuit filed becomes a multi-million dollar award for a misspelled word in a warning label. Snopes is their buzz-kill.)
All of which is a lengthy introduction to the latest “outrage” circulating through the community of Outrage Addicts, and their long-suffering email companions. A 6 year-old Cub Scout in Delaware brought a camp eating utensil to school, and was suspended under a post-Columbine zero-tolerance policy against bringing weapons to school. Under the policy, he could conceivably be sent to the District’s reform school for 45 days, and so that is the exaggerated threat being reported by the Outrage Addicts.
In this instance, the Outrage Addicts have the facts mostly right, partially because they are relying on a report by the New York Times. (More commonly, the outrage of the week comes from less credible sources, like AM radio or World Net Daily.) Of course, the threat is exaggerated and the slanted facts are picked like ripe red cherries, and the fact that the School District has already resolved the problem in favor of the little boy has not caught up (and never will catch up) to the exaggerated story of his peril, but that’s part and parcel of stories like this one.
While this particular anecdote is being circulated as an attack on zero tolerance policies, the same facts could be used as an instance of outrage if the official response had been to ignore the tiny knife-wielder.
“Troubled child from a broken home, in defiance of well-publicized policy to protect his tiny classmates from injury and death, brandishes a knife in the classroom. Upon being stopped before the blade ‘accidentally’ removed some little girl’s eye, he claimed he only brought it to use on his lunch. His irresponsible single mother, who sent her child to school armed with a knife even though she knew of the policy, is seeking to get the policy changed so that 6 year-olds can carry weapons to school when they or their parents see fit.”
Outrageous, isn’t it? If the story had included a few other facts, such as a child being accidentally hurt or, God forbid, if the child had been poor and a minority, these same circumstances could be circulated among the Outrage Addicts as a shining example of why common sense requires that we need a strong policy of zero-tolerance to protect our children from these knife-wielding barbarians.
So, in that context, what does the outrage du jour teach us about the impact of zero-tolerance policies? Sadly, it teaches us almost nothing, except for the fact that they can, in some instances, result in penalties for those who choose to ignore them. But acts portrayed as outrageous can have a disproportionate impact on public policy.
Long before the Delaware Dagger case made headlines in the Times, serious people have been struggling with the issue of the impact of zero-tolerance policies. Some argue that they over-criminalize, and others argue that more discretionary policies result in discrimination against minorities and ignoring dangerous behavior. A quick search can turn up dozens of studies supporting either view.
Honestly, I have no spectacular wisdom on the subject of zero-tolerance policies (surprised, aren’t you?). Having glanced at a few of the studies and given it a bit of thought, I probably lean against them, and certainly acknowledge that, for them to be fair and effective, they need to be drafted with incredible care and forethought – more of both than one typically finds in policy manuals.
But I insist that my knowingly-uninformed indecisiveness is superior to the knee-jerk “common sense” being spread by the Outrage Addicts. I know what I don’t know, and I would not want to form public policy on the basis of a cherubic 6 year-old Cub Scout who wanted to eat lunch with his new toy. My critical faculties make me realize that I could just as easily be forming public policy on the basis of a thuggish 6 year-old crack baby sent to school with a blade by an unemployed drug-dealing mom.
Reaction to outrageous anecdotes is a poor substitute for careful thought. If we’re going to engage in a rational discussion of zero-tolerance – and I think that’s a great discussion to have – then let’s be careful to look at both the angels and the demons.