After the Columbine school shootings in 1999, schools began greatly expanding zero-tolerance policies against student misbehavior, and nearly half the states now mandate that schools expel and often call the police on students for fighting, possessing weapons of any kind or even disrupting class. Thousands of students have been kicked out of school or taken away by cops for violating zero-tolerance policies, which may also cover legal drugs.
Yet it is questionable whether such policies make schools appreciably safer. No zero-tolerance policy would have stopped Jeff Weise, the Minnesota teenager who killed nine people and then himself on a rampage on an Indian reservation in March.
The troubled youth wasn't even attending the high school where he slew seven people, which had a metal detector, security guards and a crisis-management plan. Depressed and on Prozac, he was being taught at home by a public school teacher due to unspecified medical problems.
Four states revisiting policy
In four states - Indiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Texas - legislators are trying to reverse the trend toward one-size-fits-all harsh discipline, saying that zero-tolerance policies have gone too far.
Unlike traditional criminal laws, which require a showing of criminal intent, zero-tolerance policies generally disregard the student's intent. A 12-year-old Texas boy found this out the hard way when he inadvertently wore a coat containing his Boy Scout pocket knife to school two years ago.
A friend he consulted turned him in, and police arrested him and took him to a
juvenile-detention center without contacting his parents. He was forced to attend an alternative school for juvenile offenders for 45 days despite being a First Class Boy Scout, a youth leader at church, and the winner of an outstanding-student award, according to recent testimony in the Texas senate.
No leniency for 'honest mistake'
"All the teachers knew it was an honest mistake, but none of that mattered because of the school's policy," said the boy's father, who said his son contemplated suicide. Infractions that merit expulsion now range from spitting to swearing to skipping school. (Christian
Science Monitor, 3-31-05)
Moreover, schools with strict zero-tolerance policies may be pushing more and more students into the juvenile-justice system, says a new report from the Advancement Partnership. Reviewing schools in Denver, Chicago and Palm Beach County, FL, the report contends that schools are overreacting and calling on law enforcement to deal with minor infractions that could be better handled by parents. In Denver, the study found that most of the incidents leading to referrals to law enforcement were nonviolent.
The latest instances of students given Draconian punishments for seemingly minor infractions include:
- a 10-year-old Kansas City boy given an in-school suspension for bringing a toy gun to school which he found in the ground near his bus stop and turned over to the principal on arrival (thewmurchannel.com, 2-2-05)
- a straight-A captain of the state-champion quiz team at a Virginia high school who was suspended because his father's car contained a rusting Boy Scout pocketknife and a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur (The News Virginian, 2-3-05)
- a Texas 5th-grader handcuffed, arrested and taken to juvenile detention for the weekend on a state jail felony charge for setting off a school fire alarm (accidentally, according to his parents) (The Courier, 2-2-05)
Butter knife for apple
- A 13-year-old Texas girl suspended for packing a butter knife in her lunch in order to cut an apple as recommended to protect her braces (foxnews.com, 2-10-05)
- an 11-year-old North Carolina boy charged with a weapons violation, removed from his home and placed in a group home for months for possessing a BB gun in his book bag which he immediately turned in to a principal (Wall Street Journal, 3-11-05)
- a 5-year-old Florida girl arrested, cuffed and put in back of a police car after a violent temper tantrum at school (PalmBeachPost.com, 3-28-05)
- an 11-year-old Texas girl arrested, handcuffed, escorted off campus, charged with misdemeanor assault, and ordered to attend an alternative school for a scuffle with another girl after the other girl's parents felt that suspension wasn't enough and contacted law enforcement (Houston Chronicle, 2-3-05)
Gorilla costume on roof
- a Pennsylvania National Merit Finalist wearing a gorilla Halloween costume on the roof of his high school as a prank, who triggered a major emergency response including dozens of police, the FBI, dogs and a bomb squad, and was taken at gunpoint to the county prison on reckless endangerment and other charges, then suspended for 10 days; about eight classmates subsequently wore T-shirts to school stating "Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense," which school officials confiscated (The Morning Call, 2-16-05, 2-17-05)
- A New Jersey junior high school student suspended indefinitely after school officials discovered a model rocket engine in his locker (Asbury Park Press, 2-16-05)
- A Florida 5th-grader arrested and suspended for allegedly bringing a plastic toy gun to school (local6.com, 2-3-05)
Felonies for drawings
- Florida 9- and 10-year-old boys charged with second-degree felonies and taken away in handcuffs by police because they drew stick figures depicting violence against a third student (ocala.com, 1-26-05)
- a 13-year-old Georgia girl charged with disorderly conduct and suspended for five days for creating a list of students she wanted "eliminated," which she mentioned to other students and then tore up (opinionjournal.com, 1-27-05)
- a California high school soccer star suspended for two months for carrying a pocket knife to a school dance, to which he walked from home at night (mercurynews.com, 1-12-05)
- a 14-year-old Oklahoma girl suspended for a year after a drug-sniffing dog found prescription hormones in her locker; after intervention by the ACLU on the ground that there was no clear policy, her suspension was reduced to five days (Associated Press, 1-12-05)
Pain relief for cramps
- a Pennsylvania honor roll high school student suspended for taking the over-the-counter pain reliever Anaprox offered by a fellow student for relief of menstrual cramps, without a written order from a physician and administration by the school nurse; the offense was classified as a level 5 violation, applicable where a student "possesses drug-related paraphernalia and/or possesses, uses or is under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or mood-altering substances" (delcotimes.com, 1-28-05)
- a Pennsylvania high school honor student expelled for bringing a pocket knife to class, after 10 1/2 years of schooling with no demerits or detentions (kyw.com, 12-14-04)
(See Education Reporter, Sept. and May 2004 for numerous other examples of zero-tolerance policies in action.)