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Back to April Ed Reporter
Education Reporter
NUMBER 207 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS APRIL 2003

Zero Tolerance Follies Update 
Lethal Weapon? 
At LaSalle Middle School in Greeley, Colorado, a 2 -inch laser pointer dangling from a keychain is considered a "firearm facsimile," and earned three 13-year-old boys one-year suspensions. One of the students bought the pointer, which shines a small bright orange laser beam, at a local store and brought it to school. The boys were suspended when one of them was caught with the toy in class.

The parents of Mitch Muller, one of the students who played with the pointer "for a few minutes," tried to fight back. They hired an attorney and appealed their son's suspension, first to the school district's hearing officer and then to the full school board. They also objected to the fact that principal Bruce Hankins had pressured their son into signing a confession without another adult present.

Common sense failed, however, and the Mullers are now paying off thousands of dollars in lawyer's fees while their son, a good student who had never before been in trouble, attends an alternative program with young criminals and juvenile delinquents. In lieu of academics, the boy is forced to take "anger management" and "conflict resolution" classes, and is being "educated" about gangs.

"Even hardened felons get three strikes before they're out," Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, pointed out in an editorial in the Boulder Daily Camera (1-26-03). "Colorado has a new political prisoner," he wrote. "Someone call Amnesty International. Free Mitch Muller!"

No Vitamins Allowed  
When a 3rd grader at O'Rourke Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama took a multivitamin with his lunch, administrators slapped him with a five-day suspension for violating the district's substance abuse policy. Students reported to principal Karen Mohr that they had seen the student, Ryan Wright, take "a purple pill."

The child's father told the Associated Press that the pill was actually "a green multivitamin," and his wife, a registered nurse, did not think their son was wrong to take the pill at school.

But school officials defended the five-day suspension. The principal explained that school policy prohibits students from bringing vitamins and "look alike candies" to school.

10 Days for Plastic Knife 
A 1st grader at Struthers Elementary School in Youngstown, Ohio was suspended for 10 days on Feb. 28 for attempting to take a plastic knife home from the school cafeteria. Six-year-old Kevin Long wanted to show his mother that he had learned how to spread butter on his bread. Another student spotted the knife in Kevin's book bag and called it to the attention of a teacher.

The boy's mother, Donna Long, told the Youngstown Vindicator (3-04-03): "I didn't know he could get suspended for something like that. He wasn't waving [the knife] around or threatening anyone." She said that her son was not allowed to use knives at home, plastic or otherwise.

The March 5 issue of the Vindicator opined that in suspending Kevin, "Struthers School officials reacted in typical zero-tolerance fashion, which means near-zero thought." The editorial added that "in practice in schools, zero tolerance has produced a litany of cases that make most people shake their heads in disbelief . . . It is time to say 'enough.'"

Zero Tolerance for Life 
A student at Chardon High School in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio received two Saturdays of detention in January for wearing a sweatshirt stating: "Abortion is Homicide." The back of the shirt read: "You will not silence my message. You will not mock my God. You will stop the killing of my generation. Rock for Life."

Seventeen-year-old Bill Noyes was ordered to remove the shirt or turn it inside out after two students in the 1,200-pupil Chardon student body complained. Noyes refused, and the principal imposed the penalty. Later, the punishment was rescinded when the principal agreed to allow Noyes and the complaining students to work out a solution with the school's "peer mediation group."

A week earlier, a student in Pennsylvania was barred from wearing the same sweatshirt to a junior high school. His principal compared the shirt's message to a swastika. In that incident, a nonprofit legal group stepped in to explain the student's First Amendment rights and threaten a lawsuit.

Kindergartners Suspended 
In the troubled Philadelphia School District, 33 kindergarten children had been suspended as of December for a variety of violations, some serious, some silly. In Connecticut, more than 300 kindergartners were suspended for one to 10 days during the 1999-2000 school year. In Minnesota, 100 kindergartners were suspended during the 2000-2001 school year.

Some child psychologists question whether children that age can truly connect the crime with the punishment. Yale researcher and psychologist Walter S. Gilliam told the Associated Press that a 10-day suspension can seem like "a lifetime" to a young child. "They can't even fathom 10 days. It's like waiting for Christmas."

Gilliam found that the Connecticut suspensions were given mostly to minority boys, and suggested that zero tolerance policies are "disproportionately applied to minorities."

Critics observe that almost all zero-tolerance rulings punish boys and wonder if they are part of the feminist agenda to make little boys behave like little girls.

Zero Tolerance in Court  
Increasingly, zero-tolerance cases are ending up in the courts. The Rutherford Institute presented oral arguments Feb. 3 on behalf of the family of a child who was suspended in March 2000 for playing cops and robbers on the Sayerville, New Jersey Elementary School playground. Plaintiff "A.G." and three friends were pointing their fingers like guns during the game and were suspended for three days.

In Philadelphia, another zero-tolerance case defended by Rutherford attorneys won't go away, despite the frustration of at least one judge. Now nine years old, Daniel Walz was a five-year-old kindergartner when he was barred from giving his classmates candy canes and pencils with Christian messages on them. In February 2002, a U.S. District Court ruled that the school did not deprive the child of his rights by forbidding the handouts. The family appealed, and the case is now before the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Rutherford lawyer Michael P. Laffey contends that the boy wanted to give his classmates the gifts outside of regular class time. "The gifts would have been the student's statement and not the school's," he argued.

Third Circuit Judge Maryanne T. Barry complained in Newsday (1-09-03): "There comes a point in time when children should be allowed to grow up without being used as pawns, without being named a plaintiff in this kind of lawsuit."


 
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