Kids face plenty of hazards at school, from bullies to boredom. But the chances they'll be killed there are tiny: Homicides on school grounds are not just rare but far more rare than they used to be. Nonetheless, when a terrible crime like the Sandy Hook massacre happens, people have a natural tendency to worry that something similar will hurt the children they love. Sometimes that leads to unobjectionable safety measures, such as a basic review of a school's emergency procedures. And sometimes it just makes people crazy.
Below we'll count down five of the worst school security scares of 2013: four that we know about, and one whose pending presence we can infer. Just as important, you'll read about the policies that have allowed so many over-the-top overreactions to happen.
5. The Fresh Prince. Ambridge, Pennsylvania, February 28, 2013: An eye doctor's receptionist calls Travis Clawson to remind him he has an appointment. The high school senior doesn't answer the phone, so she hears his voice mail message, in which Clawson performs a part of the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When she gets to the line shooting some b-ball outside of the school, she mishears it as shooting some people outside of the school. And things just escalate from there.
By the day's end, Clawson's school had gone into lockdown and police had arrested the teen. "District Attorney Anthony Berosh said it was determined after listening to the message closely that it did follow the Quincy Jones-penned song and Clawson was released," the Beaver, Pennsylvania, Times reports. Clawson wasn't charged, but the acting police chief "said he urged Clawson's parents to have him change the message." Because you never know when another caller might hear a line from the most innocuous sitcom this side of Saved by the Bell and construe it as a criminal threat.
OK, you say, that story is pretty ludicrous. But you can see why everyone snapped into action after they heard the receptionist's report, and they didn't do any serious harm. Better safe than sorry, right?
Seems to me the cops could have saved everyone some trouble if they'd listened "closely" to the message before descending on Clawson, who was sitting unarmed in the school counselor's office when police arrived to arrest him. But I agree that there are worse ways to behave when a rumor of a security threat is afoot. There is, for example, our next incident…
4. The Umbrella Man. Olympia, Washington, March 19, 2013: A tipster tells the authorities that a man in a ski mask is walking the streets with an assault rifle. Three schools go into lockdown as the Olympia Police Department, the Thurston County Sheriff's Office, the Lewis County Sheriff's Office, and the Washington State Patrol launch a manhunt. After spotting the potential perpetrator on a surveillance video, the cops track him to a neighborhood on the east side of town. The man appears to lift his weapon in the air and point it at a police helicopter.
It's a good thing they didn't fire at him. The alleged rifle turned out to be an umbrella, and the supposed ski mask was a black turtleneck.
Like the Fresh Prince case, this incident rested on a ridiculous misperception. Unlike the Fresh Prince case, there wasn't even a plausible connection between the suspected shooter and a school: just a man ambling around town. Yet that was still enough to trigger three lockdowns in the area's academies, which were well-drilled in how to proceed.
Lockdown drills barely existed two decades ago, even though school violence was more common at the time. They took off after the Columbine killings of 1999 and now are required in several states. This isn't the place to get into the debate over whether those drills should exist at all. But it's clear that they can go overboard, as officials sometimes use the occasion not to react to a phantom threat but to create a phantom of their own. In January, for example, the authorities at Cary-Grove High School in Cary, Illinois, fired starter pistols during a drill, terrifying students. "School officials said they wanted to give students a chance to practice how to respond to a shooting and to know the sound of gunfire," the Chicago Tribune reports.
As Carol Gall of Mental Health America told the Tribune, the result might just be "to instill more fear and anxiety" instead. She added the practice could backfire by "desensitizing people to what happens if there is a real incident."
The line separating the imaginary from the real does tend to break down where school security is concerned. Authorities haven't simply gone into crisis mode when they mistakenly believe a gun is in the area. They have gone into crisis mode over guns that they know damn well aren't real, as our next perp learned…
3. The Hello Kitty Terrorist. January 10, 2013, Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania: A group of kindergartners waits for the school bus. Five-year-old Madison Guarna tells her friends about one of her toys, a Hello Kitty Bubbles Gun—sort of a cross between a water gun and a bubble blower. "I'll shoot you, you shoot me, and we'll all play together," she suggests.
The school deemed this a "terroristic threat" and suspended the girl. Guarna was also subjected to a series of interviews, including an evaluation by a counselor, who concluded that the girl did not display any psychological problems. The principal eventually reduced the suspension from 10 days to two and the charge from a "terroristic threat" to a "threat to harm others," an outcome that is both (a) obviously an improvement and (b) still so stupid you could scream.
The problem here, other than an apparent unfamiliarity with the meaning of the word terrorist, is the rise of "zero tolerance" policies. The criminologist James Alan Fox notes that while "no evidence exists that the zero tolerance approach has made schools any safer," officials like the way it has "eliminated any second-guessing that could potentially follow from discretionary use of sanctions." He adds that the policy may "alleviate professional responsibility and civil liability should an under-response in disciplining a troublemaker lead, subsequently, to serious acts of aggression." In other words, it's less about protecting schools from violence than protecting schools from lawsuits.
The phrase zero tolerance was imported from the drug war, according to a useful study Russell Skiba wrote for the Indiana Education Policy Center. Under the original zero tolerance, he explains, people entering the country with "even trace amounts of drugs" had their property seized and faced charges in federal court. In 1989, school districts in three states brought the concept to student discipline, subjecting kids involved with gangs, drugs, or fighting to harsh automatic penalties. "By 1993," Skiba continues, "zero tolerance policies had been adopted across the country, often broadened to include not only drugs and weapons, but also smoking and school disruption." The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 made the idea a federal mandate, and subsequent amendments "broadened the language of the bill to include any instrument that may be used as a weapon." (Hence a spate of stories in the 1990s about kids who got suspended for possesing pocketknives.) Local districts expanded the offenses even further, frequently with a deliberate policy of "punishing both major and minor disruptions relatively equally." And after Columbine, everything intensified.
By 2013, the long arm of the state could come down on a little girl for telling her friends about a Hello Kitty toy. Can it get worse than that? I'm afraid so…
2. Popped with a Pop-Tart. Brooklyn Park, Maryland, March 1, 2013: Joshua Welch, age 7, is eating a strawberry Pop-Tart at Park Elementary School. He chews it into the shape of a gun—or, at least, into a shape that's gunlike enough for pretending—and he waves it around. According to a teacher on the scene, he says "bang bang." He gets suspended for two days, and a letter goes home to the other children's parents offering counseling to any kids "troubled" by the incident.
Zero tolerance, you see, hasn't just come to cover toys designed to resemble guns; in many schools it covers objects that don't even rise to the level of "toy gun" at all. And no, the Welch case wasn't a uniquely horrible outlier. In the last few months, other children around the country have gotten into trouble for everything from a paper gun to an imaginary grenade. Laugh all you want at the Fresh Prince story, but at least it began with a sincere concern that a real threat to kids' lives was afoot. You can't say that this time: There is no way any normal person could believe a breakfast pastry posed a threat more serious than tooth decay, and yet the boy was punished anyway.
Worse still, there are professional educators who defend such decisions. When USA Today did a story about zero tolerance this month, for example, it included this passage:
Some school leaders say they must overreact rather than dismiss behavior that could lead to tragedies such as Newtown's, according to Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
"Parents have to be aware that talking about guns or using your fingers to point like a gun is no longer tolerable or prudent," Domenech said. "Everybody has to adjust. Children are being brutalized and murdered in their classrooms. It's a new world."
Point number one: It is not "a new world." Despite some awful high-profile crimes, school violence has been declining for decades; and there's little evidence of an upward trend in mass shootings in general. Point number two: Even if it were a new world, Domenech is spouting a non sequitur. No child has ever been brutalized or murdered by "using your fingers to point like a gun." To pretend otherwise is to teach kids a very strange lesson about the line between fantasy and reality. It also sullies children's records with suspensions for harmless play and diverts resources from genuine risks.
It's hard to imagine a more destructive attitude for a school to take. Sadly, you don't have to imagine…
1. The Invisible Kids. There's a second dimension to zero-tolerance schooling. It doesn't get as much press attention as stories like the Hello Kitty case or the Pop-Tart saga, since it doesn't lend itself as often to attention-grabbing headlines. But the result is even worse, because it sends students to jail.
Zero tolerance policies designed with guns and drugs in mind have a habit of expanding to cover another broad category of behavior, one that bureaucrats describe with the catch-all term "willful defiance." One result has been a vast increase in the number of suspensions and expulsions. Another has been an increase in the number of students being routed into the criminal justice system. Last year, for example, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the schools of Meridian, Mississippi, noting that students there who have been tagged as troublemakers are "regularly incarcerated" for offenses ranging from "dress code infractions" to "using vulgar language" to "flatulence in class." You read that correctly: In Meridian, farting could land a kid in jail.
This month the Justice Department agreed to drop its suit against the Meridian district in exchange for a commitment to reforms. We'll see how well that works out. In the meantime, alas, Meridian isn't the only place that's been running a school-to-prison pipeline, as voices from Detroit to Dallas have attested. And the rules that are used to punish these students, who are disproportionately poor and nonwhite, arose directly from the zero tolerance wave that began in the 1990s and escalated after Columbine. As schools amp up their security policies again in the wake of Sandy Hook, you can expect to see even more of this down the road. "After Columbine, they passed a slew of 'zero tolerance' laws," the civil rights activist Mariame Kaba wrote right after the Newtown murders. "Guess which schools got the police officers and metal detectors?"
In theory, the current debate over school security pits the advocates of new gun controls against the advocates of arming school personnel. In practice, it's easy to imagine those positions converging on a middle ground that should horrify both principled liberals and principled conservatives: one where the "school resource officers" who increasingly patrol the halls are more likely to be armed, and where the rules they enforce are more likely to entail absurd zero-tolerance decrees. The results will creep in quietly, showing up in anonymous statistics instead of colorful headlines.
The good news is that a movement is emerging to push back against these paranoid policies. Reformers have introduced legislation to stop the worst abuses, from a Maryland bill to end lunacies like the Pop-Tart punishment to a trio of Texas proposals that would roll back the criminalization of student misbehavior. The momentum may favor the other side right now, but some people still understand the difference between keeping kids safe and keeping them prisoner.