Enough Blame for Everyone

"[Y]ou can't legislate common sense," said Colorado Senate President Tom Norton last week. He was trying to avoid any blame for the overturned expulsion of a student from a Longmont elementary school. Ten-year-old Shanon Coslett took an apple paring knife to class when she accidentally picked up her mom's lunch. She immediately took the 3" shiv to her teacher who went to the principal who expelled the girl for bringing a knife to school.

That's what the law sponsored by Tom Norton two sessions ago says to do. Senator Norton has tried to weasel his way off the issue by saying administrators and the St. Vrain school district's elected board of governors could have met in a special session and overturned the decision. I'm sure that method would have provided immense relief to both the student and the Senator.

Now I fully agree that "you can't legislate common sense." But I also know you can legislate against common sense. You can get so caught up in details that you leave no choices, no room for individual initiative.

It doesn't seem to me that the Colorado Senate should be concerning themselves so intimately with violence in the schools. Common sense says that is a matter for teachers, principals, and local school boards. But apparently Senator Norton thinks common sense means Shanon must be expelled. He thinks common sense requires an emergency meeting of school district officials to manage the mandates set down by law.

That's not the sort of common sense we commoners have. Now I haven't bothered investigating what Norton and Representative Jeanne Adkins said during their original sponsorship of the law, but my intuition tells me they were not bragging about the good sense of school administrators and the excellent personal judgment of principals. I suspect they weren't even honoring the idea of home rule, of the independence of school boards. If I were a betting man, I'd wager they even used the law to get reelected in a "get tough with education" campaign.

Perhaps not enough delinquents were getting expelled, but that's a reason for giving more options, more legal tools to principals and school boards, not tying their hands by mandating expulsion and then washing your own hands of responsibility by saying the people didn't exercise common sense.

Yet we voters can't wash our hands of responsibility either. We call them lawmakers and thus expect new laws. Our elected officials aren't Machiavellan. I'm sure Norton believes, like most of us who vote for people like him, that each law is useful. We need to tweak our own view of legislation. We should examine every law spewed by governing bodies with a jaundiced eye, using criteria such as Norton's: Does this law encourage common sense?

Basically though, we voters kust alter our own default behavior. The phrase, "There oughta be a law" arises often in the media and in private discussions between citizens. But the law, any law, is basically violence subsumed. If you break the law, bullies beat you up. They aren't bullies anymore, though. They are police and prosecutors and park rangers and IRS accountants and any bureaucrat with a sheaf of regulations. And they don't beat you up, they just put you in jail or take away your money or prevent you from making a living.

A law is mighty powerful.

Any time we ask for a new law, we are providing new weapons to bully some citizen. We probably all need to exercise more care, more common sense, in what we demand of our laws, our lawmakers, and ultimately ourselves.