School zero tolerance policies have gone too far

November 08, 2010|By Mary Sanchez

We'll begin this discussion of crazed policies regarding school safety with a confession.

As a child, I had a deep fascination for a contraption called a wrist rocket. It was a toy my brothers owned and I wanted. It worked like a miniature catapult for spitballs, rocks, marbles and whatever else you could nestle into the rubber band-like launcher. I never took it to the schoolyard near my house, where I often played, but only because I could never sneak it away from my brothers.

So perhaps that's why I'm inclined toward leniency for the fifth-grade girl in a middle-class suburb of Kansas City who was recently suspended for more than three months for playing with a clear plastic toy gun.

An "A" student and a Girl Scout, she committed her grievous offense on a Sunday, when school was not in session. She wasn't the child who brought the toy gun to the playground. Apparently many children played with it, shooting plastic pellets. One of the children went home with a harmless (but no doubt stinging) red welt, the police were called, and when all was said and done the fifth-grader found herself suspended until after the New Year.

Do we really want a society in which children are denied an education as punishment for child's play, albeit ill advised?

We're already there. The little girl's story is hardly an isolated incident. The same week she was punished, the parents of a Florida 8-year-old succeeded in overturning his expulsion a year ago for forgetting to remove a nearly identical toy gun from his school backpack. The toy was discovered when the child was rummaging for a pencil.

That child missed a year of classes before school officials, pressured by the family's lawyer, came to their senses. Increasingly, the calls are for more common sense and discretion. About time those two attributes returned.

Zero tolerance policies for schools became widespread in the early 1990s, encouraged by federal and state law. Initially, they addressed threats such as weapons and drugs. But over time they were extended to cover threats made by students. The intent is to discourage dangerous behavior by cracking down hard on all offenses equally, from the relatively minor to the serious.

More than 90 percent of schools have adopted zero tolerance, despite dubious outcomes. A 2000 study cleverly titled "Zero Tolerence, Zero Evidence" concluded: "There is as yet little evidence that the strategies typically associated with zero tolerance contribute to improved student behavior or overall school safety."

So what good are they? Well, they soothe an anxious public frightened by the terrors of Columbine and other highly publicized, horrific acts of school violence.

The American Bar Association has argued that schools statistically are among the safest places for children and that zero tolerance strategies label children's behavior as criminal. Indeed, in many instances police are called and students wind up being referred to juvenile authorities for "offenses" like carting nail files and plastic squirt guns and plastic knives suitable for cutting birthday cake to class. The ABA has been joined in its criticisms of the policies by the American Psychological Association, the ACLU and other civil rights organizations.

The ABA also pointed out the policies make the same fundamental mistake as mandatory sentencing laws: They take away the discretion that is necessary to weed out unjust and disproportionate punishments.

School districts obviously have a legal and moral duty to keep children safe. And parents can exert tremendous influence, insisting that every possibility of danger is met with a rule. At least until zero tolerance befalls their little cherub.

Fortunately, a few states have begun to lessen the harshness and absolute nature of their statutes. Texas now says schools should look at the students' intent in firearms cases, and Rhode Island says incidents should be assessed case by case.

If we want reasonable and fair rules to prevail in our schools, reasonable parents and civic groups will have to step up and demand a return to sanity.

Thankfully, my brothers and I survived our school years relatively unscathed. Nothing stitches, bandages and time couldn't heal. I realize many children are not so lucky. Horrible accidents do occur, and children can knowingly and by accident harm others.

But far too often keeping children safe at all costs is indeed costing us. Namely, the ability to discern between reasonable precautions and an overbearing will to punish that won't even permit child's play.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Her e-mail is msanchez@kcstar.com.

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