Zero, Eighteen, and Other Horrible Numbers

Quick, what does 18 mean to you?

Maybe it means the age you get to vote (if you live in the US).  If you drive trucks for a living, it’s the classic number of wheels on your rig.  It’s the atomic number of argon, a very noble gas indeed.  It signifies prosperity in some Chinese culture.  Maybe it’s just a number that comes between 17 and 19.

What does zero mean to you?  I’m not sure, but to the Weld County (Colorado) School District, it means zero common sense.

You see, in addition to a list of bad words, they have a list of bad numbers.  I couldn’t make that up.  13, 14, 18, 31, 41 and 81 are all bad numbers.  Gangs have used each of these numbers as “branding” for their gang or their ideas, apparently.  So, using zero common sense, Weld County Schools ban any use of the number.  Even when that number is worn by a third grader in the form of a Payton Manning jersey.

For people who don’t keep up with American Football, Payton Manning is the Colorado Bronco’s new star quarterback.  So it is sort of expected that a school kid from a nearby town might own a few things with his number on it.  Like a jersey.

While I absolutely believe in keeping students safe from violence, I’m not sure anyone with sense would think an 8 or 9 year old wearing a sports jersey of the local star football player is a gang member (and, no, people aren’t getting shot in Greeley for wearing the number 18!).  And never mind you can wear 88 (a pro-Hitler reference) at school!

That’s the problem when people develop “simple” and “clear” policies.  They both fail to achieve the desired goal (banning symbols of violence or symbols that might incite others to become violent) by not being far-reaching enough (such as not including 88 or almost any other number that can be used by someone for hateful purposes), while simultaneously going too far (and applying to people who are conveying a different meaning than gang membership).

Sure, it’s good to have simple and clear policies.  But blind application of rigid principles ends up hurting people.  There are times and places for exceptions to rules (and common sense).

For instance, we don’t want students to make threats to other students.  But what do you do when you report the severe bullying of a disabled, younger student, and the school does nothing?  Well if you let the kids know you’ll do something about it, you’ll get suspended.  For bullying.

Or, a pool might ban life jackets, water wings, and other flotation devices.  Should they ban them from a disabled child swimming with his mother?

The problem with cut-and-dry rules and policies is that they don’t take exceptional circumstances into account.  People aren’t cut-and-dry.  We’re messy, hard to classify, unique, and have all sorts of oddities that nobody but ourselves may realize.  It’s pretty hard…no, it’s impossible to write comprehensive policies that give a nice flowchart of questions and answers.  Because you won’t always ask the right question.  You need to ask questions like,

  • “Was the number 18 being used as a gang symbol by this third grader wearing the local football quarterback’s jersey?”
  • “Was the threat by this older student disproportionate to the situation and actually bullying behavior?”
  • “Are these water wings helping this disabled student take part and enjoy the pool, in a way that would be impossible otherwise?”

Sure, you could add these types of questions to the offensive policies, and that certainly would improve them.  But it wouldn’t approve them enough.  Rigid enforcement of rules doesn’t do anyone any favors – it will ignore real harms while simultaneously causing harms of its’ own.