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Stop Tolerating Zero Tolerance

StarrPointsZero tolerance, as enforced in too many schools today, is a policy that punishes the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. It treats children as adult offenders without the presumption of innocence, disrupts the lives and educations of good students nearly as often as it does those of troubled students, and treats all covered offenses and all students equally, regardless of age, intent, past behavior, or magnitude of the offense. It has to stop.

How many more children are we going to damage -- and possibly destroy -- in the name of zero tolerance? It happened again last week. I read about two incidents. I'm sure there were more.

In one of the most recent incidents, a Madison (Wisconsin) sixth-grader was suspended for bringing a kitchen knife to school. The popular honor student wanted to cut an onion for a science project. His principal recommended that he be expelled.

In the other incident, a senior at South High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was suspended after he posted a poll on his unofficial student Web site. School officials claimed that the poll, which asked students to vote on whether a certain school administrator most resembled Big Bird, a witch, or a dead body, constituted a death threat.

Other notable incidences:

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four "nearly grown" children, has been an education writer for almost a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.
  • Two second-graders in Danbury, Connecticut, were arrested, carted away in a squad car, and charged with breach of peace after school officials notified police that each student had threatened to "kill" someone.
  • In Thornton, Colorado, a fifth-grade girl was arrested for sexual harassment after repeatedly asking a classmate if he liked her.
  • In Jefferson County, Missouri, a fifth-grader was suspended for drawing a picture of a burning World Trade Center and smiling as he showed the picture to classmates. A school district representative called the child's behavior "threatening."
  • In Jonesboro, Arkansas, a first-grader was suspended for pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying "Pow."
  • In Deer Lakes, Pennsylvania, a kindergarten student was suspended for bringing a toy ax to school. He was dressed as a firefighter for Halloween.
  • In Bedford, Texas, a 16-year-old honor student was expelled after a security guard noticed a kitchen knife on the floor of the student's car. The knife apparently had fallen unnoticed as the student carted some of his grandmother's possessions to Goodwill. He was ordered to spend a year in a juvenile-justice education program and banished from district property and school-sponsored activities. (Later, in the wake of public protest, his "sentence" was reduced to a five-day suspension.)
  • In Winona, Mississippi, a fifth-grader was suspended for a year after he was found with razor blades he had confiscated from an acquaintance who said he was going to use them to hurt someone. One might argue that this child should have turned the razor blades over to school authorities. Then again, maybe he'd heard about the Longmont (Colorado) fifth-grader who, finding that her mother had packed a plastic knife in her lunch box, turned the knife in to her teacher. The child was told that she'd done the right thing -- then was expelled.

The list goes on and on and on. A complete recital of the idiocy that masquerades as safety policy in our nation's schools today would curl your hair -- or turn your stomach.

What are we thinking? Is it even conceivable that the thoughtless or immature or even unwitting actions of those children -- and they are children -- posed a danger to their teachers or their classmates? Even the administrators who ordered their punishments admit that they didn't. Still, the suspensions and expulsions and transfers to alternative educational programs were, in most cases, carried out. "Our hands are tied," the educators righteously insisted. "We have a zero-tolerance policy."

Ah yes, the sacred zero-tolerance policy -- a right-sounding idea gone very, very wrong. How did it happen?

It started, innocently enough, with the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which required states to enact laws mandating that schools expel any student found on school property with a gun. Contrary to popular belief, the Gun-Free Schools Act does permit states to pass laws allowing school superintendents to modify the expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis.

Many states, however, went above and beyond the federal mandate, passing laws that required expulsion or suspension for the possession of all weapons and all objects that could possibly be used as weapons.

Finally, school districts got into the act. Apparently more concerned with covering their own assets than with common sense approaches to student safety, districts established zero-tolerance policies that mandated equal punishment for the possession -- knowingly or unknowingly -- of weapons, possible weapons, potential weapons, virtual weapons, imaginary weapons, and perceived weapons as well as for threats, possible threats, potential threats, virtual threats, perceived threats, and threatening attitudes or demeanor. Gradually, schools added infractions unrelated to weapons, such as the possession -- or possible possession or perceived possession -- of alcohol, drugs, a smart mouth, or a dumb act. Oh, yes, and breaded chicken fingers.

That is how it started. Now it has to stop.

It has to stop, says the American Bar Association, which has passed a resolution opposing, "in principle, 'zero tolerance' policies that have a discriminatory effect, or mandate either expulsion or referral of students to juvenile or criminal court, without regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense or the student's history."

It has to stop, says Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance, a Phi Delta Kappan article, which states, "Zero tolerance was developed in response to legitimate concerns that cannot be ignored. However, when the solution creates more difficulty than the original problem, it is time to abandon it for something better."

It has to stop, says Harvard University's Civil Rights Project in "Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies." "The exclusion of students from the educational process is a crisis of epidemic proportions; it has long-term implications not only for the students affected but also for our society as a whole."

It has to stop because zero tolerance, as enforced in too many schools today, is a policy that punishes the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. It treats children as adult offenders without the presumption of innocence, disrupts the lives and educations of good students more often than it does those of troubled students, and treats all covered offenses and all students equally, regardless of age, intent, past behavior, or magnitude of the offense -- this list too could go on and on and on.

Mostly, current zero-tolerance policies must be stopped because they simply don't work. Youth violence is a complicated issue that can be addressed only by early intervention and prevention programs involving schools, families, and communities in dealing with the causes of violent behavior -- and prevented with adequate security. Zero-tolerance policies provide the illusion that schools are dealing with youth violence, when, in fact, they are simply attempting to shove it outside and lock the door. Unfortunately, too many innocent children are being locked out too. My mother used to call it "throwing out the baby with the bath water." In this case, that's far too true.

In 1998, 3.1 million students were suspended from U.S. schools. Nearly 100,000 more were expelled. The vast majority of those punishments were for minor offenses -- the inevitable result of children acting like children. The emotional and educational fallout from those suspensions and expulsions, however, reach into adulthood.

Yes, schools do have a responsibility to keep kids safe. Safety policies that keep real weapons out of schools make sense. Zero-tolerance policies that apply the same punishment to students possessing real weapons as they do to students possessing chicken fingers are nonsense. It has to stop.

Repeat after me. We must keep our children safe -- safe from weapons, safe from violence, and safe from zero-tolerance policies that damage more children than the weapons they purport to protect them from.

Now go out and do something about it.