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Education Reporter

The Cutting Edge of Zero Tolerance
Draconian policies penalize students, parents

CENTENNIAL, CO - When seven 4th-grade boys at Dry Creek Elementary School were discovered pointing "finger guns" at each other on the playground during a game of soldiers and aliens, Principal Darci Mickle found them in violation of the school's zero tolerance policy. She quizzed them about whether their parents owned guns and then suspended them for the remainder of the day. They were required to serve a one-week detention during lunchtime recess, sitting in the hallway where they were teased and taunted by other students.

Following the incident, one parent reported that her son dreaded going to school. Another student developed stomach problems, and still another began complaining of headaches. None of the seven had previously been in trouble.

According to the May 13 Washington Times, the parents were angry that their children had not been given a warning to stop the offending behavior before disciplinary action was taken, and they objected to the grilling "about private family matters such as gun ownership." "It's none of [the principal's] business," asserted one boy's father. "If she wants to know that, she needs to ask me."

While Colorado law mandates expulsion for students who "carry, bring, use or possess a firearm or firearm facsimile at school," the Times pointed out that "nowhere does it mention fingers."

Locally, the Denver Post gave the Cherry Creek School District its "Doofus of the Month" award, and the Rocky Mountain News opined that "it is simply none of a principal's business whether a family owns guns."

Dry Creek students are now officially forbidden to point "finger guns," and school superintendent Monte Moses publicly supported Ms. Mickle's actions. Although there are no plans to soften the zero-tolerance policy, the school district did order Cherry Creek principals not to question children about family firearms.

Punishing a Good Deed  
Colorado is not the only state to go overboard with zero tolerance. In Hurst, TX, a 16-year-old honor student was expelled from the Hurst-Euless-Bedford (H.E.B.) School District in March after a school security guard found a butter knife in the bed of his pickup truck parked on school grounds. The knife apparently fell out of a box of household items he and his father had transported the previous day from his ailing grandmother's home to a local Goodwill store.

At a hearing with school officials and local police, Hess's parents argued that their son was never in possession of the knife and had not known it was there. Nonetheless, school officials claimed the boy's action constituted a danger to other students and placed him in a disciplinary alternative education program. They recommended a one-year expulsion and possible placement in the Tarrant County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program, which Hess's father described as "for hard-core, violent youth."

Although the original mandatory expulsion was upheld, the boy was allowed to return to school after spending five days in the district's alternative education program. The expulsion will not be part of his permanent record.

Cheese State Zero Tolerance 
When Madison, Wisconsin, 6th-grader Chris Schmidt and several classmates planned a presentation about onions for an assignment "to discuss the properties of a fruit or vegetable," Schmidt thought he'd get a better grade by slicing one of the onions open to display its inner layers and disperse the smell. For this purpose and without consulting his parents, he brought a small serrated table knife to school.

Schmidt was suspended, and school administrators recommended a one-year expulsion for possession of "a dangerous weapon." Then the school district provided the boy with a private tutor off campus for two hours a day at taxpayer expense. District officials advised the family that, if Chris admitted to committing "a crime," agreed to a psychological evaluation and took an anger management course, his expulsion could be reduced. The parents refused, and instead rallied the support of other parents and friends.

The incident received local publicity and news quickly spread over the internet. People from across the country emailed the media and posted comments on internet message boards protesting Schmidt's plight and offering their own bizarre examples of zero tolerance. In April, the Wisconsin Public School Hearing Examiner ruled that Madison school district officials had not proven their case and that Schmidt could return to school.

More Zero Tolerance  
Other recent examples of zero tolerance include:

  • A high school senior in Leesburg, GA was expelled just three weeks before graduation when two steak knives were found in the bed of his pickup truck. The knives were inadvertently left behind after a weekend camping trip.  
  • An 11-year-old honor student in Pennsylvania was suspended and accused of making a "terrorist threat" when, after failing a vocabulary test, she drew stick figure pictures of her teachers on gallows with arrows through their necks. Her mother "had advised her to express her anger in writing or drawing."  
  • A seven-year-old Florida boy was expelled for the remainder of the school year for stabbing four of his classmates with a pencil, and the county prosecutor decided to press charges for "felony aggravated assault." (The boy is reportedly "on medication.") NewsMax.com observed that the expulsion "seemed to be enough of a punishment, and hopefully, the school had the sense to have the child learn to deal with his anger. None of the students was hurt, so the matter should have been resolved."

Zero Tolerance for French Fries  
Critics say zero tolerance policies hastily punish children without regard to facts and penalize them for playing the age-old games of childhood, such as cops and robbers, tag, and dodge ball. "I think the schools are paranoid and the policies just don't work," Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead told the Washington Times (4-1-02). "This is a draconian type of punishment that doesn't even look at intent."

Rutherford announced April 8 that its lawsuit filed suit last year on behalf of Anshe Hedgepeth, then 12, who was arrested in Oct. 2000 for eating french fries in a Washington, D.C. Transit Authority subway station, will go to trial. (See Education Reporter, Feb. 2001.)

The suit charged the Transit Authority and the Metropolitan Police Department with constitutional violations including illegal search and seizure, and for having a discriminatory policy allowing different treatment for minors and adults. Children caught eating in the subway were taken into custody, while adults were issued citations. (The Transit Authority claims it has since revised its policy.)

Contributing Factors 
Some observers believe zero-tolerance policies have emerged not only as a result of the 1994 federal Gun-Free Schools Act and the tragedies of recent years, but other factors as well. Free Congress Foundation Director William S. Lind stated in a commentary appearing on the Foundation's website that "We have stripped schoolteachers of the authority they need to maintain discipline. If they attempt to do so, they face a myriad of rules, the violation of any one of which puts their jobs in jeopardy" and leaves them vulnerable to parental lawsuits.

Another factor, Lind wrote, is that "Everyone is terrified to challenge any policy that is justified by the magic word 'security.' To oppose Gestapo tactics in a school is to 'put children in danger.'"

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