I am going to tell you a story.
Erin Cox is a star volleyball player. She is a senior at North Andover High School, just outside of Boston. The 17-year-old was recently suspended by the school for five games and stripped of her captaincy because she was at a party that involved alcohol and, eventually, the police.
Sounds as if the punishment fits the crime?
Based on those facts alone, I would agree. Those were certainly the only facts considered as the school's applied its "zero tolerance" policy to the situation. If only it were that simple.
What if I told you Erin hadn't been drinking?
Does that soften your position?
What if I told you that Erin hadn't even been at the party but for a few moments?
What if I told you that Erin had been at a yogurt shop when she got a phone call from a friend who asked Erin for help getting out of the party?
That tilts your prism a little bit, doesn't it?
Assuming that Erin Cox is telling us the whole truth -- and, based on all the people corroborating her version of the story, I will take her at her word -- she did almost all the right things. She answered the call of a friend. She helped someone get out of a potentially unsafe situation. She had made a better choice for her own social activity that night.
You noticed that I said almost all the right things.
The one thing Erin missed was that she didn't protect herself. I don't mean that she should've refused to help because she might get in trouble. That's the last thing I mean as I rather admire her selflessness.
Hindsight being 20/20, of course, I mean that she didn't tell someone. She didn't call or text her mom, Eleanor. If the friend in question felt the situation was unsafe, it was unwise for Erin to plunge herself into it without letting someone else know. The friend did right to call and Erin did right to help, but she didn't account for the "what if..." that seems to happen all too often. Far worse things than a five-game suspension could've befallen her that night.
Is that reason enough to punish her?
No, of course not.
I have zero patience for "zero tolerance" as a policy for almost anything. The older I get, the less I deal in absolutes. I say "always" and "never" less and less often because, as I have gained a wee bit of wisdom, I find that just about every rule has an exception.
As Granddad put it:
"Boy, all generalizations all false."
That makes just about every "zero tolerance" policy ultimately worthless. It looks and sounds tough, but it's really just a lazy, spineless, cowardly way to paint every situation with one easy stroke of a very broad brush. It teaches students such as Erin Cox to protect themselves, but in the wrong ways.
I'm glad she didn't take that lesson.
The cautionary portion of this tale should be "Don't go it alone." The friend knew it [good for her] and I wish Erin had known it then. She'll get better at it, hopefully without getting bitter about it.
The moral of this story is:
Erin Cox did the right thing for the right reason.
North Andover High School did the wrong thing for the wrong reason.
Unfortunately, you can't un-ring a bell.