A third grader in Suffolk City Schools took out a toy pistol while riding home on the bus and found that he was in big trouble. While the efforts to keep guns out of schools are critical to safety and order, "zero tolerance" policies have not always worked. "Zero tolerance" should not be "zero common sense." Organizations, particularly bureaucracies, like rules!
Even though we are not particularly fond of consequences, except for others, we like regulations. As a school administrator, I frequently found that our patrons wanted justice for everyone else's children and mercy for theirs. The justice/mercy dichotomy is a conundrum for bureaucracies. How do we apply consistently, and equitably, the standards for any organization and at the same time address the human context and variations that may be evident?
A toy gun on the end of a key chain is not the same as a .38 Special, but they both may be called a gun. What is the solution? First, we must make sure that our rules are clearly stated and accurate in mission. Ambiguity gives latitude to abuse. Second, are rules consistently interpreted? This should not infer that judgment should be eliminated, but simply that we should have a common understanding of its meaning. Third, do we consistently apply the rule? Here comes the rub. Differences in application should not be related to whether or not the rule should be enforced.
Maybe bureaucracies should be less about compliance and more about cultivating a conscience.