The Right to Boyhood

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Things looked gloomy for fourth-grader Brandon MacLean in October 1998. He had made a mistake young boys rarely recover from in these days of zero tolerance: He had carried a toy gun to school, concealing it throughout the day in his backpack but revealing it to friends on the walk home. The five-and-a-half-inch green gun shot the most dangerous ammo available: hollow-point foam bullets, know as sister annoyers on the street. Two neighborhood kids reported the incident to their mommy, who, evidently tired of snooping through the neighbors' mail in search of Victoria's Secret catalogs and other signs of degeneracy, notified the school.

Brandon faced expulsion. The school showed some mercy, though, instead suspending him for 10 days, of which he served six. Meanwhile, the MacLeans secured an attorney, who took the case to court to clear the boy's record.

Brandon finally got justice on May 2, 2000, more than a year and a half after the original incident, when Judge Thomas Horne of the Loudoun County Circuit Court ruled that the school had violated the boy's constitutional right to due process. This was a clear victory for Brandon, who now won't have to report the suspension on his college applications. But it failed to help other students who've run afoul of zealous zero-tolerance policies—such as the kindergartner from Deer Lakes, Pennsylvania, who a couple of years ago was suspended after he accessorized his Halloween firefighter costume with a plastic ax.

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