In Pensacola and elsewhere, case after zero tolerance case demonstrates to all but those who impose them that zero tolerance, as conceived and as applied, is an abomination of justice. Zero Tolerance in Pensacola: Inquisition in a Cesspool

The new school year has barely begun, yet the zero tolerance torquemados are already hard at their unforgiving task, punishing the innocent in mindless obeisance to institutionalized dereliction of duty.

Teresa Elenz is a 15-year-old sophomore at Pensacola High School. She is enrolled in an International Baccalaureate program, taking advanced courses. Her grades are stunning, her disciplinary record unblemished. She plays multiple musical instruments. She is an artist. Duke University’s Talent Identification Program has tracked her academic progress since third grade. She’s a member of the National Honor Society, listed in Who’s Who Among American High School Students. She wants to become a college astronomy professor, combining teaching with research.

Teresa Elenz may never be accepted at a college. She may never get the scholarship she must have to fulfill her dreams. She is currently under suspension and may be expelled from high school.

Several weeks ago, Teresa picked up a plastic bag on the school ground. The bag contained pills. She didn’t know what they were, but she knew instantly that she was in trouble. The school’s public address system warns daily, several times: No weapons, no drugs of any kind, no excuses, zero tolerance.

Teresa panicked. There were other students around. If she threw the pills back on the ground, it could be reported that they were hers. If she turned them in to a teacher, the accusation could be the same. Under zero tolerance, possession is possession. Zero tolerance breeds fear, both real and irrational.

Teresa put the pills in her purse, asking a friend to put the purse in her backpack, while Teresa thought through what to do. The friend opened the purse, intrigued by what the contents might be. The pills were seen by another student, who reported to a teacher, who nailed Teresa’s friend. Teresa immediately confessed to what she had done.

The police were called and an officer investigated. Most of the pills were over-the-counter sinus or allergy medication. One was not. Called Klonopin, it is a drug used to treat seizures and panic disorders. Non-addictive and not known to be used illicitly, it is nonetheless a controlled substance, eliminating discretion in the school’s zero tolerance policy.

After investigation, the police believed Teresa and would not charge her. The school district’s zero tolerance policy doesn’t care. If you’re caught with a controlled substance, you’re immediately suspended, on your way to expulsion. Zero tolerance, no excuses.

Teresa got a "hearing." That was a secret little Star Chamber proceeding at which she was not allowed to have an attorney present. Recommendation: Expulsion. The facts, the circumstances as outlined by Teresa, which are almost universally believed, are immaterial. The zero tolerance policy says... see, right here, it says specifically... we’re so sorry, Teresa, you didn’t intend a crime, you didn’t commit a crime, but the policy says... .

Teresa’s attorney, Kelly McGraw, requested a hearing before an Escambia County School Board-appointed independent hearing officer. His recommendation is pending. The Center for Individual Freedom has entered the case, fully supporting Teresa’s legal efforts to clear her name and return to school. The next step is a decision by the School Board.

The factual story of Teresa Elenz’s case is horrible enough, told in isolation. In context, it becomes much worse.

The Escambia County School District is an educational cesspool. Last year, it achieved national embarrassment over a teacher who showed up at school high on cocaine. He couldn’t be fired because of the school district’s contract with its teachers union. Although the teacher eventually resigned and never re-entered the classroom, the case still stirs considerable local emotion. Great education lesson, that. Students are destroyed when innocent; teachers get a second chance when guilty.

There’s more. In recent weeks, an Escambia High School Principal "retired," following allegations of trading teaching jobs for sexual favors. Earlier in September, the founder and coordinator of the International Baccalaureate program stepped down after it was discovered that he had falsely claimed to have an earned PhD.

Pensacola High School, not a stellar attraction in the education firmament, has more than 1600 students, only a hundred of whom are in the International Baccalaureate program. Although the program brought both money and prestige to the school, the students, many of whom come from other high schools within the District, are resented by rank-and-file students, and there have been clashes.

Last March, Escambia County School District Superintendent Jim Paul criticized the zero tolerance policy of his own schools. "One thing we know for sure is that zero tolerance doesn’t work," he said. That was the politically advantageous thing to say, but nothing changed. Paul referred to an American Bar Association report that has condemned zero tolerance policies, specifically outlining a host of concerns. Nothing changes.

School officials, in Pensacola and elsewhere, publicly whine their sympathies for students like Teresa. Yes, it’s terrible, we know innocent lives are being destroyed, but the policy says... . Well, that dog don’t hunt, because these are largely the same political hacks who made the policies in the first place, oh so happy to get the federal education grant money that comes with them, oh so responsible to reimpose discipline in our schools.

In Pensacola and elsewhere, case after zero tolerance case demonstrates to all but those who impose them that zero tolerance, as conceived and as applied, is an abomination of justice. It is also institutionalized child abuse, as despicable as any other form, more so because those who hold themselves out as the right and the righteous are those who are furthering it.

September 26, 2002
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