A six-year-old first-grader and new Cub Scout, Zachary Christie of Newark, Delaware, was recently suspended from school and threatened with 45 days in the district’s reform school for violating the district's "zero tolerance policy" against weapons by taking to school a camp-style folding knife-fork-spoon to eat his lunch with. According to a story in the New York Times, school officials had no choice but to take the action because knives are banned by the district's code of conduct “regardless of possessor’s intent.”
In the same district two years ago, a third-grade girl was expelled for a year because her grandmother had sent a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it. The teacher called the principal, but not before using the knife to cut and serve the cake.
And just a couple of weeks ago, 17-year-old Eagle Scout Matt Whalen of Lansingburgh High School in upstate New York was suspended from school for 20 days for keeping a 2-inch pocketknife, which his police chief grandfather had given him, locked in a survival kit in his car (another student had told a school employee that it was there). Reportedly, the initial suspension was for 5 days but was then lengthened to 20 in order to be "consistent" with the penalty imposed in other cases for violation of the school's "zero tolerance policy" against weapons on school grounds. The young man has had to be tutored at home during the suspension, and fears that the blot on his record will prevent his admission to West Point after graduation.
Other incidents stretching back more than a decade include:
LONGMONT, CO (April, 1999) -- A 10-year-old student was expelled when she turned in the small cutting knife her mother had placed in her lunchbox to cut her apple. (USA TODAY)Check here and here for more lists of zero-tolerance outrages.
ALEXANDRIA, LA -- A second-grader was expelled for bringing her grandfather's gold-plated pocket watch to school because the watch had a tiny knife attached. (USA TODAY)
NEWPORT NEWS, VA(October, 1996) -- A kindergartner was suspended for bringing a beeper from home and showing it to classmates during a field trip. (CNN)
FAIRBORN, OH (October, 1996) -- A 13-year-old honor student was suspended from school for 10 days for accepting two Midol tablets from a classmate. (CNN)
FORT MYERS, Fla. (May, 2001) -- An 18-year-old senior and National Merit Scholar was suspended and charged with a felony count of possessing a weapon when a kitchen knife was found on the floor of her car while she was in class. (FOX NEWS)
Originally enacted in the mid-1990s in response to notorious incidents of school violence, such as the Columbine High School massacre, had the noble purpose of preventing such incidents and keeping students safe. But a problem was soon perceived. According to the Times story:
Education experts say that zero-tolerance policies initially allowed authorities more leeway in punishing students, but were applied in a discriminatory fashion. Many studies indicate that African-Americans were several times more likely to be suspended or expelled than other students for the same offenses. “The result of those studies is that more school districts have removed discretion in applying the disciplinary policies to avoid criticism of being biased,” said Ronnie Casella, an associate professor of education at Central Connecticut State University . . .Ah, there's the rub! If school officials are allowed to use judgment and discretion, some students might be subjected to undue harshness. The obvious solution is to remove any opportunity for judgment and discretion, so that all students are equally subject to undue harshness--right?
But the absurdity of "zero tolerance" goes even deeper than that. It's part of the whole statist mindset that the best, the only, solution to any problem is overwhelming official force. Criminalize everything. Show everyone within your jurisdiction that they are at your absolute mercy, and terrify them into submission. No student, no citizen, is any less suspect than another--they're all presumed miscreants who must be cowed and controlled for the greater good of whatever community you preside over. This attitude is related to the "Nanny State" malignancy I recently explored, in which government agencies invoke vague and overbroad "licensing" laws to bully ordinary citizens and take control of essentially private matters like routine child care, in the name of protecting children and society from "irresponsible" people (i.e., anyone who doesn't have a state license). That children themselves might be damaged by the mindless enforcement of such policies is beyond acknowledgment by their proponents, since such policies are ostensibly intended to protect children.
As one commentator on the Zach Christie case has observed:
Zero-tolerance rules were created specifically to not allow common sense to come into play. They are inflexible by design and proponents argue that this is exactly how it is supposed to work. Punishing students for innocent mistakes acts as a deterrent to those who might have more nefarious ideas.As anyone of much life experience knows, of course--and quite aside from the cruelty and uselessness of inflicting severe punishment for innocuous or well-meaning behavior--a child actually bent on harming another with a real weapon isn't going to be deterred by threats of suspension or expulsion from school. Only the innocent are likely to suffer much in this Draconian regime.
Given widespread criticism of zero-tolerance policies by groups as diverse as the American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Education Association, and the CATO Institute--not to mention the embarrassing publicity that their ruthless enforcement often produces--one might think that state legislatures and school officials would all be hurrying to amend such provisions and allow the responsible personnel more room for common-sense judgment and sound discretion in dealing with students who have things that might hurt themselves or others on school grounds. But as yet there doesn't seem to be a tidal wave in this direction. Why not?
Perhaps it's because many school officials don't want to use common-sense judgment and discretion. That's the way school problems were handled in the old days, before education became a "science" for which advanced university degrees were required. Besides, "common sense" implies being held to an informal and somewhat subjective (though commonly recognized and held) standard that the officials themselves didn't write. "Judgment" and "discretion" involve the making of often difficult choices according to such external moral and ethical conventions, which may leave one's decision exposed to question or challenge as "discriminatory," or otherwise incorrect. Zero tolerance protects the official's hindquarters by allowing the defense of "I was just following orders"--or in this case, "the rules." In other words, it enables the official to avoid all personal responsibility while maximizing his or her power.
Not all school personnel would eschew being able to exercise more responsibility and common sense in school disciplinary matters, but enough probably fear such exposure that the pace of reform may be very slow and uneven. A web site set up by Zachary Christie's mother states that following publicity about his case, the local school board voted unanimously to amend the district's Code of Conduct for the 2009-2010 school year to allow individual schools and school administrators more discretion when deciding disciplinary actions for students in kindergarten and first grade. That's a positive beginning, but it leaves all older students at the mercy of "zero-tolerance" rules. If you have children in elementary, middle, or high school, it would be wise to familiarize yourself with the school's policies before trouble happens, and press officials for any necessary changes to make sure that your children are governed by people who can and will exercise common sense and good judgment, rather than arbitrary power.
One last thing: I don't think we should be conditioning our children to regard as "normal" or beneficial an environment governed by arbitrary and absolute power. If we want them to learn how to do justice in their own lives, now and when they're grown, they need to see it modeled by their teachers and school officials. "Zero tolerance," as applied in cases like Zach Christie's and Matt Whalen's, makes that impossible.