Zero Tolerance for Duck Sauce
New Jersey throws the book at an innocent schoolboy.

The Wall Street Journal, Monday, August 27, 2001

EAST HANOVER, N.J.--The police complaint reads like something out of "Monty Python's Flying Circus": The defendant "did within the jurisdiction of this court knowingly construct a fake bomb . . . specifically by wrapping up several packages of duck sauce and soy sauce inside tissue paper, taping it up with clear tape and writing on it Danger Warning Swanton Bomb, therefore in violation of NJS 2C:33-3."

Wait, it gets even more surreal. The perpetrator, Jason Anagnos, was all of nine years old when he committed this "crime." Jason, now 10 and on probation, is a bright, somewhat shy young man who plays Little League and is a fan of the World Wrestling Federation. The "Swanton Bomb," he explains to me on a sweltering summer afternoon in his family's backyard, is a WWF move. Thanks to New Jersey's "zero tolerance" school-discipline policies, Jason has the dubious distinction of being the youngest American, and perhaps the only one, ever to be convicted of a crime for making a pun.

Jason's trouble with the law began on March 29, when his gifted-and-talented class at East Hanover Central School took a field trip to a museum. He had assembled the "Swanton bomb"--it was, in his description, roughly three inches square--as a gag the previous night, using leftovers from the family's Chinese dinner. During the trip he showed it to his friend Lucas.

"So you could like squish it and it would explode?" Jason quotes Lucas as asking.

"Yeah, I guess," replied Jason.

Jason's teacher was not amused. She took him aside and scolded him, saying he might scare somebody. She confiscated the "bomb," and that was that--or so it seemed. Jason had no idea he was in any trouble.

Until the next morning, that is, when Jason was called out of music class and summoned to Principal Lawrence Mendelowitz's office. Waiting for him were not only his parents and Mr. Mendelowitz, but a policeman, who interrogated the boy about the Swanton bomb.

Mr. Mendelowitz suspended Jason for a week and ordered him to see a psychiatrist, Dale Jacobs. Taxpayers picked up Dr. Jacobs's $350 fee, and on April 5 the good doctor certified that Jason "does not pose a threat to anyone's physical safety." Jason returned to school the following week.

Yet his ordeal was not over. On April 3, Detective Thomas Fahy had filed a delinquency complaint with the New Jersey Superior Court. Jason's parents didn't want to put their son through a trial, and they couldn't afford to spend thousands of dollars on a lawyer. Jason's father, Gene Anagnos, says a prosecutor told him the penalty would be more severe if Jason were convicted in a trial than if he pleaded guilty. So in late April he did, and was sentenced to a year's probation and 10 hours of community service.

The charges against Jason were plainly trumped-up. The law Detective Fahy accused him of violating is New Jersey's "false public alarms" statute, which stipulates that someone is guilty if he makes a false bomb threat "knowing . . . that it is likely to cause evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transport, or to cause public inconveniences or alarm." It's clear from talking to Jason that he was only playing and had no intention of alarming anyone. There was in fact no evacuation, public inconvenience or alarm; if there had been, school authorities would not have waited until the next day to call the police. And even Principal Mendelowitz, the man who decided this was a matter worthy of police attention, acknowledged in a letter to Jason's parents that "I do not believe Jason intended to cause harm."

So why did this ever go beyond the principal's office, let alone all the way to court? Trying to get a specific answer proved futile. Mr. Mendelowitz did not return a phone call or respond to written questions faxed to his office, and spokesmen for both the East Hanover Police Department and the Morris County Prosecutor's Office said confidentiality laws prohibit them from discussing a juvenile case.

The policy that allowed this to get out of hand is a 54-page document called "A Uniform State Memorandum of Understanding Between Education and Law Enforcement Officials." Originally issued by New Jersey's attorney general in 1992 and revised in 1999, the memorandum requires, among many other things, that school officials "immediately notify" police if a student makes a "credible threat" of violence.

On its face, this provision--indeed, the whole memorandum--is unobjectionable. But school officials and law-enforcement agents don't always exercise common sense in determining whether a "threat" is credible. The same month Jason landed in hot water, prosecutors in nearby Essex County charged two eight-year-old Irvington boys with "making terrorist threats" because they played cops-and-robbers with "paper guns." Those charges were dropped only after embarrassing national publicity.

The memorandum says nothing to discourage school officials from making frivolous reports, or police or prosecutors from acting on them. An understandable but misguided post-Columbine hypervigilance provides an additional spur to take every "threat," no matter how implausible, seriously. "I would rather be criticized for being overcautious than not," says John Dangler, Morris County's chief prosecutor.

But a prosecutor who brings charges against a demonstrably innocent defendant is as derelict in his duty as one who lets the guilty go free. New Jersey has effectively criminalized children's play, becoming "the single most oppressive state in terms of enforcing zero-tolerance policies," according to Steven Aden of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based public-interest legal group that monitors school-discipline abuses nationwide.

Or, as Jason himself says, "They just don't know what they're doing. They think they're dealing with adults. . . . It just annoys me. They're dealing with nine- and 10-year-olds."

Jason Anagnos was born in 1991, but he already seems wiser than some of the grown-ups who run things around here.

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