The latest pupils to fall victim to schools' rigid "zero-tolerance" policies against drugs and weapons include:
- An 11-year-old Maryland boy suspended for 10 days for including a steak knife in a decorated shoebox of items he took to class for an assignment to show "What would you take on a camping trip and why?" The boy never threatened anyone. (The Star Democrat, 5-27-04)
- A 13-year-old Utah boy suspended for 45 days for giving his cousin a cold pill that had been prescribed for both children. (Associated Press, 5-30-04)
- A 5-year-old Ohio boy suspended for 10 days for bringing a small pocketknife to school. The knife, which included a file, toothpick and spoon, was given to the boy by his grandfather's best friend. He may face expulsion. (Associated Press, 5-1-04)
- A Florida senior girl expelled for unintentionally bringing a stun gun into her high school parking lot in her mother's car. (naplesnews.com, 4-29-04)
- A 15-year-old Alabama girl sentenced to 15 days in an alternative school for taking an ibuprofen pill at school to relieve menstrual cramps. However, a judge ruled in July that the discipline was "both excessive and unfair." (Associated Press, 7-15-04)
- The 4th-grade class in Washington State that lost a teacher-supervised project to build a pioneer-style gun. Now, the project can be completed only by combining the pieces off campus and it may not be considered a student activity. (TheSpokesman-Review.com, 4-11-04)
- A 16-year-old Texas girl sent to 3 1/2 months in a discipline school for allegedly drinking at a high school football game. (houstonchronicle.com, 4-18-04) A concerned group of parents in her community has organized a web site devoted to over-the-top school discipline, called katyzerotolerance.com.
Texas state senator Jon Lindsay (R-Houston) tried unsuccessfully during the 2003 legislature to remove the zero-tolerance requirements from state law. "I have not been a fan of zero tolerance because it implies or requires zero thinking," state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) told the Houston Chronicle.
Policies against sexual harassment also cast a wide net. A 9-year-old Connecticut boy was suspended for three days for grazing a girl's backside during a game of tag. (WTNH.com, 4-2-04)
Where's discipline when we need it?
The harsh penalties in public schools for the seemingly minor offenses listed above coexist incongruously with extraordinarily lax discipline for other behavioral problems. In her new book Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity, Elizabeth Gold describes her year of teaching 9th-grade English in 2000 in a "progressive" New York City "New Visions" high school. Small size, student empowerment and a relevant curriculum were supposed to improve education. They didn't.
The classroom chaos brought Gold to the edge of a nervous breakdown. There were no consequences, for example, to a student who would reply "Kiss my ass" to a teacher.
On the other side of the country this spring, a Phoenix high school teacher got so fed up with a student's vulgar behavior that she went to court to request an injunction to stop the harassment. Her court petition alleged that the 15-year-old student daily told her in front of other students "to go (expletive) myself." (arizonarepublic.com, 4-10-04)
Another new book, Judging School Discipline by Richard Arum, traces classroom chaos to the student-rights revolution of the 1960s, when elite lawyers began suing schools for disciplining students, abetted by the federal Legal Services Corp. and foundation money. In the early 1970s a judge actually required a New York principal to allow a senior girl who had struck and threatened him during school race riots to attend her graduation ceremony.
Courts are overwhelmingly more likely to overturn a disciplinary decision if the student is African-American. Black students win 91% of challenges to expulsion, versus 38% of whites. (Wall Street Journal, 3-25-04) Yet, as columnist Heather Mac Donald points out, minority students are the biggest losers in the disruptive environment of inner-city classrooms.