Zero Tolerance Causing Turmoil
Efforts to keep students safe on campus and punish those who would impinge on that safety sometimes have unintended consequences. Events continue to unfold across the nation that turn individual schools into laughingstocks. Sometimes school administrators are in a tight spot and must follow the law, but sometimes they choose outlandish solutions to small problems.
Students often face troubling consequences over zero-tolerance incidents. According to the New York Times, “Faced with mounting evidence that get-tough policies in schools are leading to arrest records, low academic achievement, and high dropout rates that especially affect minority students, cities and school districts around the country are rethinking their approach to minor offenses.” (12-2-2013)
Some schools are amending their policies to allow students to remain at school with in-school suspensions, instead of casting them out. Often suspended and expelled students roam the streets and get into more trouble.
Punished for Honesty
In a zero-tolerance weapons incident, a Pittsburgh area high school student was suspended for being honest. David Schaffner III accidentally brought his pocketknife to a football game. He had been using it in the woods to cut branches, according to his father. Schaffner simply forgot to take it out of his pocket before his dad dropped him off at the game. When he realized his misstep, he approached a security guard and voluntarily turned in his knife. There was no metal detector or bag check; the teen sought to follow the rules although he was in no danger of getting caught with the knife. The student said the security guard “put it on the table next to him, said I could go into the game and he’d get me later on.” The Fox Chapel High School principal soon found David and kicked him out of the football game. The following Monday morning he proceeded to suspend the student for ten days.
David’s father said, “To me it sends a message, you should probably lie, because you’re going to get punished.” Pittsburgh attorney Phil DiLucente asked, “What are we teaching our youth today? To not be honest, to not be open and forthcoming?” (CBS Pittsburgh, 9-20-13)
Virginia Pellet Guns
The Virginia Beach City Public School District has put three boys on long-term suspension for playing with Airsoft guns on private property, 70 yards away from a bus stop while awaiting the bus. Airsoft guns are air-powered guns that shoot plastic pellets that are non-lethal. The police have not and will not be filing charges in this incident. The 7th-grade student whose yard the kids were playing in said, “We see the bus come. We put the gun down. We did not take the Airsoft gun to the bus stop. We did not take the gun to school.” The father of another Larkspur Middle School student who was suspended in the incident said, “I always thought this was a Dad deal, not a school deal. It was a parental issue not a school issue.” The school district claims one of the boys jumped off private property and into the street.
The school district issued a statement that said, “This is not an example of a public educator overreaching. This was not zero tolerance at all. This was a measured response to a threat to student safety.” A disciplinary committee suspended the boys until at least January 2014; at that time there will be another hearing to determine whether the boys may return to school. (Daily Caller, 9-25-13 & WAVY News, 9-26-13)
Fishing Knives in Georgia
In Georgia, police performing a random sweep found fishing knives in a tackle box in a 17-year-old student’s car. A search warrant was obtained when a drug-sniffing dog smelled residue from fireworks in the vehicle.
The student told the Marietta Daily Journal, “I have an attorney and I’m hoping to get the felony dropped so I can still get in the Air Force.” The student faced two to ten years in prison and fines of up to $10,000 if convicted. He served a ten-day suspension from school, but the district attorney agreed to a “pretrial diversion program,” which may include community service and if successfully completed will result in a clean record for the student.
In another Georgia incident, a student was arrested and charged with a felony under the zero-tolerance law because he had a pocketknife in the console of his car when parked on campus.
Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds, commenting on the two incidents, said, “Having to raise two teenagers myself, it concerns me these kids can get jammed up on things because these laws don’t allow for any mitigating circumstances.” As the Georgia law stands, authorities are given no discretion to use common sense. There is movement in Georgia to alter zero-tolerance laws to allow for some common sense and discretion by authorities and schools. (Marietta Daily Journal, 10-17-13)
125 Shotgun Shells, a Machete, and Firebombs
Schools that are genuinely concerned about safety in situations that call for instant response must take action to protect students. Just one day after the first anniversary of the tragic slaughter of innocents in Newtown, Connecticut, a 17-year-old student was killed at a suburban Denver high school by a student gunman who then took his own life. The murderous student entered the school with a shotgun, more than 125 shotgun shells, a machete, and three homemade firebombs, according to the Associated Press. When a sheriff’s deputy on duty at the school confronted the student, he committed suicide. Many still wonder how such a heavily armed individual was ever able to enter the school.
A balance between protecting students from real threats and making logical responses to smaller infractions must be found for all schools. Although some schools have security officers, few schools are allowing armed teachers and armed guards. Schools advertising that they are gun-free zones seem to present an open invitation to armed crazies who are out to kill. Heavily armed individuals’ ability to enter schools must be addressed by all districts and stopped at all schools.