3 min

Zero tolerance the wrong response to college shooting

Don't blame the goths for actions of a crazy individual

I’ll never forget the time my friend Rachel took me to a goth bar for the first time. I was a 16-year-old high school student in Unionville, Ontario. We were both students in a special arts school that drew kids from a wide swath of suburbia and cow country. She named herself Chaos and used to draw designs on her face with black eyeliner.

I had a huge head of permed hair, and my fashion sense was less Morticia Adams, and more Blossom Russow.

She took me to a bar called Sanctuary at Queen and Bathurst in Toronto. After getting over the initial shock of tripping over a coffin at the front entrance, I soon found myself surrounded by a group of highly sensitive, intelligent young men in their early 20s. Many of them were probably queer. They were too underfed to look like any sort of a threat. And besides, they were too busy reciting passages from Allen Ginsburg’s Howl to think about taking part in any sort of armed revolution.

That’s why I didn’t know whether to shudder or laugh when I heard a lot of the rhetoric coming from media commentators after the horrific shooting at Dawson College in Montreal. The message was loud and clear: beware of teenagers in trench coats. Keep an eye on the sensitive ones, the ones who don’t fit in. Bookish shy boys could transform at any moment into a gun-toting terrorists. Watch your kids carefully, and keep a look out for warning signs – like a sudden interest in black eyeliner, whiny music and Beat poetry.

While I welcome any attention that will be paid to combating high school bullying in the aftermath of the Dawson tragedy, I worry that opportunistic politicians will use this as a platform to advocate wrong-headed “zero tolerance” policies that will only serve to censor youth and contribute even more to their frustration.

In the wake of the Columbine shootings and the World Trade Center attacks, high schools all across the US have instituted restrictions on privacy and freedom of expression with the purported goal of keeping kids safe. Many schools have been outfitted with metal detectors, and teens are often subjected to invasive random searches of their bodies and belongings. Students have been ordered to take off T-shirts with anti-war messages, and in one truly ridiculous case, Tawana Dawson, a high school student in Florida with an excellent academic record, was expelled for bringing a set of nail clippers to school.

On a website set up by parents in Springfield, Virginia called “Zero Tolerance nightmares,” people have posted dozens of examples of how these policies only serve to marginalize and punish teens for minor – or non-existent – offences. One mother describes how her son was arrested and expelled for bringing a dull knife to school to cut up some fruit. Another parent describes how her daughter and 10 others were suspended for six weeks after admitting that they drank beer at cheerleading camp. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

All of this hysteria echoes the rabid anti-drug propaganda promoted by the Republican administration in the US in the 1980s. In her book Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, Maia Szalavitz traces the connection between Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, and the growth of military-style wilderness drug treatment programs. According to Szalavitz, the so-called “tough love” movement spawned a multi-billion dollar industry that claims to be the answer to “any type of adolescent difficulty from depression or minor drug use to out of control depression and defiance.” Daytime talk shows still feature tearful testimonials from parents whose children have suddenly transformed into angels after a few months of living in tents and conforming to brutal discipline and severe restrictions on their personal freedom.

The truth, according to Szalavitz, is much less rosy. In fact, there is no statistical evidence to prove that draconian measures help teenagers get over the rebellion and experimentation that represent a legitimate stage in young people’s development. She maintains that parents could do much more harm by trying to sniff out non-existent pathologies, than by keeping the lines of communication open and seeking out more empathetic treatment for teens with genuine mental or emotional difficulties.

Even the CIA agrees, if you can believe it. As reported by the CBC, in 2002 the US Secret Service Safe School Initiative warned, “profiling is not effective for identifying students who may pose a risk for targeted violence at school,” arguing that background, academic record or socio-economic status are not indicators of future behaviour.

Let’s add trench coats, punk haircuts and eyeliner to that list.