Education

Zero Tolerance Hurts Kids and Ruins Schools

We need common sense in our schools, not mindless bureaucratic compliance.

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Virginia Beach sixth-grader Adrionna Harris took a razor away from a troubled student who was cutting himself and threw it in the trash. When school administrators found out, they gave her a certificate of merit for helping a classmate.

Ha, ha! Of course they didn't. They gave her a 10-day suspension, with a recommendation that she be expelled. For three or four seconds there, she was in possession of a dangerous object in violation of the school's zero-tolerance policies.

The only reason administrators found out about the incident was that Adrionna volunteered the information. And the only reason she threw the razor away instead of turning it in was because she didn't want to violate school policy. As she told WAVY-TV, she didn't want to "hold it in my hand long enough for it to, like, become an issue. The trash can was right there."

School officials eventually backed down—after getting slammed by bad publicity—and the young lady returned to school a few days ago. Administrators reportedly are tired of taking heat from the public, the poor dears. (Why do bad things always happen to them?)

Nathan Entingh wasn't so lucky. The 10-year-old who pointed his finger and said "bang" was suspended for what the Einsteins of the Columbus, Ohio, school system considered a "level 2 look-alike firearm." After agonizing over that decision for weeks, officials decided that, on reflection, they had been right all along. They upheld the suspension.

Entingh got off lucky compared with Jordan Wiser, who spent 13 days in jail on a felony charge because he drove onto school property with a pocketknife in the trunk of his car. Then there's Taylor Trostle, a middle-schooler suspended for pointing her finger and saying, "pew, pew." And Andrew Mikel, a Spotsylvania, Virginia, 14-year-old expelled and charged with assault for blowing pellets through a plastic pen tube. And 7-year-old Josh Welch, of the infamous Pop-Tart gun. And too many other cases to list.

Zero-tolerance policies have been around for a couple of decades. They were launched by the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required expulsion for bringing a firearm to school. But like diaper rash, they did not remain confined to one area. Soon kids were landing in hot water for bringing to school such deadly objects as a butter knife (King William, Va.) and nail clippers (Escambia, Fla.). They have gotten in trouble for engaging in such threatening behavior as drawing an Army man (Ouachita Parish, La.) and playing cops and robbers (Sayreville, N.J., and elsewhere). And for taking or handing out birth control (Fairfax, Va.), Midol (Pierce County, Wash.), Alka-Seltzer (too many places to name), and even Certs breath mints (Manassas, Va.).

Such stories invariably elicit outrage, and from time to time a district here or there will rethink zero-tolerance policies, or claim to. "Rethinking Zero Tolerance: A Few Schools Are Inching Away from One-Strike Policies," reported Newsweek back in 2001. A decade later, The Washington Post reported "More Schools Rethinking Zero-Tolerance Discipline Stand."

They must not be the fastest thinkers. In January 2013, a 5-year-old girl was kicked out of kindergarten for "threatening" to "shoot" classmates with a Hello Kitty soap-bubble gun. But don't worry—this January, The New York Times confidently informed readers that "schools across the country are rethinking 'zero tolerance' discipline policies."

If your brain has more electrical activity than a bowl of lukewarm Jell-O, then you know why zero-tolerance policies are stupid. First, they ignore blatantly obvious distinctions. Gnawing a Pop-Tart into the rough silhouette of a gun does not turn it into a firearm. Breath mints are not a Schedule I narcotic. Fingers don't fire projectiles.

Second, zero-tolerance policies don't prevent the incidents they are designed to prevent. Deeply disturbed individuals who commit school massacres—the Dylan Klebolds and Adam Lanzas of the world—are not deterred by rules, and they do not commit mayhem with soap bubbles. So a rule that bans soap-bubble guns in school has zero effect on school violence.

School officials will reply that they have to apply school policies consistently: A knife is a knife, and knives are weapons, even when they are used to spread butter. Nonsense. By that logic everyone on the wrestling team should be suspended for fighting, and a student who sketches a rifle should be punished for "drawing a gun" (which has actually happened more than once).

It's great that a school district here and there has second thoughts about first-strike policies. But that doesn't solve the broader problem, which is rooted in a bureaucratic compliance mentality. Just ask Chaz Seale, a Texas 17-year-old who accidentally shoved a Coors into his brown-bag lunch instead of a soda. When he realized his mistake he gave the unopened beer to a teacher. The teacher told the principal, and the principal suspended Seale for three days and sentenced him to two months at an alternative school.

Like Adrionna Harris and countless others, Seale has learned two things from zero-tolerance policies: No good deed goes unpunished. And—as comedian Ron White likes to say—you can't fix stupid.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.