The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, December 06, 2003

Advil and the question of political traction

I'm often perplexed here with two, sometimes linked, questions:
  1. why do the press go with one story, and leave alone another with apparently equal news value and potential for circulation boost? and

  2. why do protests on some issues have political traction, and others, apparently equally cogent, have none?

From Joanne Jacobs comes yet another story of plain madness from the zero tolerance school board file, from way down in Shreveport, LA.

Now, over the years, Pelican State politics has not been short of entertainment value for soberer citizens elsewhere: Huey Long and his crazy brother Earl Long [1] were a Vegas in themselves.

But there's nothing Gale Sondergaard about the latest Louisiana lunacy (Shreveport Times (December 5) concerning student Amanda Stiles:
A student expelled from Parkway High for a year for having Advil, an over-the-counter pain reliever, will not be allowed to return to the school.

Zero-tolerance deliberately and brazenly breaches the longstanding principle of proportionality of punishment to offences that informs (in theory at least) penal systems across the Western world. It glories in its facial unfairness [2].

Yet the school board members are scarcely a bunch of Washington-imposed carpetbaggers! As I understand it, they're elected by the people in the school district they manage. How can they behave like a bunch of King George's men? When's the Tea Party?

Americans are great at getting groups together for the furtherance of a common mission. Why not go for the madness of zero tolerance?

Because, I suspect, ZT is supported by that other madness: the War on Drugs. Abroad, Uncle Sam makes a twat of himself with his futile attempt to stamp out the coca plant down south. At home, he fills up the Federal jails with addicts [3] - and expels kids with headache pills. (And keeps asthma-sufferers from their inhalers.)

I'd like to know how many of those berating - and rightly - the lunacy of zero-tolerance were hounding legislators back in the 80s and 90s for throw away the key sentences for narcotics possession.

And, with legislative lunacy, as proved by the experience with Jim Crow, possession is nine points of the law. I mentioned before, I think, the crazy New York Rockefeller laws on narcotics. Venturing to suppose that a majority of legislators in Albany would privately favour repeal - and that they would walk over hot coals rather than admit as much!

As with Jim Crow, salvation (if any) will in general lie in the courts, I suspect, not the Capitol or state houses [4].

However, it occur to me that, in the insurgent states of the West, whose constitutions provide for recalls and inititiatives, ZT might be a suitable case for treatment. A cursory search yields no sign that this has been tried (this is a California school board recall (aborted) on unrelated grounds).

(You'd have thought that, of all the organisations with electoral muscle who might be interested in joining the opposition to ZT, the NRA might be at the forefront. In fact - in 1999, at least - they were right behind it.)

  1. Who was one of the cohort of post-war Southern liberal governors, like Big Jim Folsom, Sid McMath and Strom Thurmond - I have a dead-tree bio of Earl Long which I must dig up some time.

  2. I don't want to get dragged into the jury questions on the Amanda Stiles case; but the Times piece suggests that she may have grounds for legal action against the school board.

    For instance, though

    Superintendent Ken Kruithof said after the board meeting that the school system is following a state law that requires a one-year expulsion...
    he is contradicted by
    Betty McCauley, Bossier schools student services director.
    who says that
    ...having medication on campus doesn't automatically lead to a one-year expulsion. "After an investigation and a hearing then, if necessary, punishment is administered. It could be no punishment."
    Kruithof said he didn't know if the category covered nonprescription, prescription and illegal drugs or only nonprescription drugs.
    Pity Sorrell Brook's not available for the TV movie...

  3. Do we get to hear anything on the racism of Federal narcotics laws from candidate Al Sharpton?

  4. An August 2003 official report on zero tolerance in Tennessee schools (PDF) shows numbers for ZT exclusions rising steeply and blacks disproportionately ejected.

    It also refers (p11a) to the legislative framework (state and Federal) mandating ZT: for instance, the Federal rules were toughened by the No Child Left Behind Act, apparently (p15a).

    There's reference (p18a) to a class action suit against the Knox County school board following a suicide by a ZT excludee. Surely this stuff is meat and drink for if it bleeds, it leads local TV?

    Plenty of ZT horror stories at Overlawyered, natch.


One also has to factor in ass-covering on the part of the schools and school board - a factor in the Columbus Mockingbird story (December 5), and most others in this area. With ZT, they're potentially the meat in the sandwich: right now, it's a no-lose option to bow to legal and regulatory diktat; an effective campaign of class-action suits would make times more interesting, in the Chinese curse sense.

And the polling that I've seen - shows ZT for weapons, at least, as being extremely popular: this 2000 survey put the pros and cons at 87:12 (though down from 93:5 in 97) - the same survey in 2003 doesn't include the question, it seems.

(This 2001 Salon piece noted while the URL is to hand.)

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