Civil Liberties

What's Worse Than Zero Tolerance?

The continuing case of Erin Cox.


[This post has been updated; see below.]

Yesterday I noted the case of Erin Cox, a Massachusetts teen who was suspended from her school's volleyball team because she attended a party where alcohol was being served. The problem: She not only wasn't drinking but wasn't really a guest at the party. The only reason she was there was to pick up a friend who was too drunk to drive and called her for help.

Now the district's superintendent, Kevin Hutchinson, has spoken publicly about the case. North Andover Patch reports:

We thought this through and decided it was the best option.

The matter has been decried [as] a situation of "zero tolerance" gone overboard. But Hutchinson says there is no such policy:

"We do not have a 'zero tolerance policy.' Each incident is fully investigated and decided upon based on the individual facts and circumstances. Our administrators are tasked with applying the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) rules pertaining to student-athletes and alcohol in a consistent and fair manner," Hutchinson wrote. "To be clear, the MIAA's, and by extension North Andover High School's, 'chemical health rule' prohibits student-athletes from possessing alcohol, in addition to prohibiting its use, consumption, or distribution."

Cox has reportedly been cleared of any wrongdoing regarding alcohol use or distribution at the party in question. And Hutchinson—who said disciplinary decisions like these are made by the principal following MIAA guidelines—did not offer any clarification as to why North Andover High School Principal Carla Scuzzarella decided the particular punishment was appropriate.

In other words: According to Superintendent Hutchinson, Cox's school does not have an inflexible rule that produced a perverse incentive to let a drunk friend drive a car. Cox's school carefully considered the evidence, investigated its options, and then deliberately decided to take an action that produces a perverse incentive to let a drunk friend drive a car.

Never let it be said that zero tolerance is the single dumbest idea in American schools.

Second thoughts: I may have misunderstood Hutchinson. It is entirely possible that school officials punished Cox not because they thought her story didn't matter, but because they didn't believe her story in the first place. Guests at the party have disputed Cox's account of the evening, asserting on Facebook that she was there for longer than she admitted and that she drank heavily. (The word "puking" appears.)

I have strong doubts about that high-school-grapevine version of events. It has been contradicted by one of the officers at the scene, who reported that Cox "was polite, articulate, steady on her feet" and "did not have the slightest odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from her person." And while the Facebook chatter included claims that video shot at the scene would undermine the girl's tale, the video has failed to materialize.

On the other hand, the friend Cox says she was there to help has not materialized either. And you needn't believe Cox was drinking to the point of vomiting to imagine that her story isn't true. There is, at any rate, a fair chance that the school did not think it was true, and thus that I misconstrued the meaning of Hutchinson's comments. Mea culpa.