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raised fistMy kids attended a small “school of choice” for middle school. One of the main focuses of their middle school was teaching the kids leadership, including learning the difference between acting in a proactive versus reactive manner. Their school operated without services (which could be provided though the other more traditional schools in the district, if necessary). They got a percentage of a principal, if you will, meaning the teachers pretty much ran the school. Like any institution, the school was subject to the personalities of those in charge and to how those people applied the policies.

The school’s kids had access to large practice fields for their recess time—or whatever you call recess for middle schoolers. The teachers often stood at the top of the hill while the kids milled around below them.

One day, during spring of 8th grade for my son, he was being harassed by one particular kid. There were two groups made up of girls and boys around those two boys. The kid pushed down my son. My son got up. The kid pushed him down again. He got up again. After the third time the kid pushed him down, my son got up and swacked the guy with his baseball hat. Ah ha—the teachers spied that move and called out both boys.

Despite all the eye witness accounts, each boy received an equal suspension from school. The “percentage” principal was called over to talk with both boys. When he met with my son, this man who barely knew him said, “Your hair is greasy and you smell bad. Don’t you ever wash?” I have no idea what he said to the other boy—the one, who by every student’s account, even those from the other group, was the aggressor.

My husband and I were called in to talk with the teachers. And we asked them, “So if our son is walking down the hall and someone reaches out and hits him—and he responds in any physical way—he will be suspended? And they said, “Yes. We have zero tolerance for violence.” Well, I guess that’s zero tolerance for the violence they personally see. I mean, they seemed to imply they just couldn’t believe our son responded in a reactive manner to how he was being treated. And no praise for the times he resisted the urge to respond.

As if most 13-year-old boys have the maturity to walk away, especially if they tried to do so and it didn’t make a difference.

So, the teachers didn’t appear to have the responsibility to de-escalate a situation, weigh any circumstances, or recognize that they pretty much had tolerated violence—until our son responded to violence committed against him. As we heard it, they couldn’t help it—their hands were tied. A rule is a rule. Until it’s applied differently for different people.

And, yes, we had previously experienced this sort of uneven treatment when our daughter was pushed down and injured in grade school. One sore arm and $200 x-ray for her . . . led to the school talking with the boy and his parents. That was it.

So much for zero tolerance.

For my kids, those were a few of the memorable times in their lives when the people in charge did not treat them justly. Turns out that life is not a game. However, even as really little kids, all of us know enough to feel outraged when people use different rules in order to win. Cries of “that’s not fair” are common from our youngest days.

Imagine a society where day in and day out, some people are reminded just how much the rules work better for people who aren’t like them—and that many people are just fine with that—if they’re the people getting the better part of that deal.

As long as we as a society accept the validity of treating certain people one way while treating others another, we shouldn’t be surprised when rage builds, especially when systemic inequities exist in the application of justice and opportunity.

But for those of us willing to admit that applying rules unfairly is not okay—now what? If we want to avoid being at the end of reactive responses to aggression and suppression, first we have to see and point out such oppression. And then we need to be proactive, both in leading and in choosing leaders who will unshackle this nation from its lopsided history of establishing justice for only some.

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