LUNATIC LESSONS

'Zero Tolerance' Makes Zero Sense
School discipline goes mad.


BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Friday, May 18, 2001

Quick: Name an issue that unites the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Rutherford Institute. The answer is "zero tolerance," the lunatic policy under which schools across America are suspending, expelling and even jailing kids for the most trivial of offenses, all in the name of preventing another Columbine.

On May 4, the ACLU won a temporary restraining order on behalf of Kara Williams, a 16-year-old freshman at Rio Rancho High School, near Albuquerque, N.M. Ms. Williams had the misfortune of being out of class at a time when two other girls were suspected of smoking marijuana in the girls' room. She was summoned to the principal's office, where a security guard searched her bag. She had no pot, but the guard did find a key chain, attached to which was a tiny penknife, complete with tweezers, toothpick and a one-inch blade.

Under the school's zero-tolerance weapons policy, Ms. Williams was suspended for the remainder of the school year--some 45 days. Five weeks later, federal judge Bruce Black ordered the school to readmit Kara pending the outcome of the case; last week the school board effectively reduced her sentence to time served.

But the allegation of "carrying a deadly weapon" will remain on her record, unless Judge Black rules otherwise. Deadly? Ms. Williams's stepfather told KOAT-TV that he brought a similar penknife to the federal courthouse, where a security officer "looked at it and didn't think nothing of it. Went through the metal detector, gave it back to me and said, 'Go on.' "

The Rutherford Institute, meanwhile, has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of nine-year-old Raleigh "Trey" Walker III, suspended for drawing weapons. That's drawing--as in illustrating, sketching, depicting. In March, Trey, a third-grader at Lenwil Elementary School in West Monroe, La., drew a picture of a soldier holding a knife--a tribute, his father said, to a relative in the Army. Principal Edward Davis put Trey on "in-school suspension" for a day, saying he found the picture upsetting. (You be the judge; it's reproduced nearby.) "We can't tolerate anything that has to do with guns or knives," Mr. Davis told the Monroe News-Star.

Willie Isby, director of child welfare and attendance for the Ouachita Parish school system, added that "the punishment is not that bad in this case, in light of the fact that we have been having all these killings in schools." Mr. Isby also vowed to suppress "copycat drawings." Meanwhile Trey's father, Raleigh Walker II, told the News-Star, "I had to explain to him that owning guns and being in the Army is not bad."

Since March, when I began following zero-tolerance for the "Best of the Web Today" feature of OpinionJournal.com, this page's Web site, I've read dozens of news stories about outrageously stupid acts of school discipline. (I'm grateful to OpinionJournal's readers for tipping me off to many of them.) A complete archive is available on the site, but here's a sampling:

Last week an 11-year-old fifth-grader in Oldsmar, Fla., was hauled out of class in handcuffs for drawing pictures of weapons. "The children were in no danger at all," Oldsmar Elementary Principal David Schmitt acknowledged in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "It involved no real weapons." But school-district spokesman Ron Stone told the Times that handcuffing is "normal procedure in a situation like this."

A 16-year-old girl was suspended for 10 days from Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School in Gardnerville, Nev., for compiling a list of classmates who "frustrated" her. "We don't want a school shooting in our county, and we would rather err on the side of student safety," principal Robbin Pedrett told the Associated Press--even though the girl had no access to weapons.

In Stuart, Fla., a nine-year-old second-grader was arrested and charged with aggravated assault--a felony--after he allegedly pointed a toy gun at a classmate at J.D. Parker Elementary School. Earlier, two eight-year-olds at the Augusta Street School in Irvington, N.J., were charged with "making terrorist threats" after playing cops and robbers with "paper guns." (Prosecutors later dropped the charges.) And in Jonesboro, Ark., eight-year-old Christopher Kissinger was suspended from South Elementary School for three days for pointing a boneless, breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying, "Pow, pow, pow."

What accounts for this madness? Why are schools so wildly overreacting to, or even criminalizing, ordinary juvenile behavior? The specter of Columbine and other heavily publicized school shootings obviously haunts school officials everywhere. But zero tolerance long predates that massacre. The Education Department reported that in the 1996-97 school year--two years before Columbine--94% of schools nationwide already had zero-tolerance policies for firearms.

The reactions we've seen lately--reminiscent of the Secret Service investigating every wisecrack or offhand remark about assassinating the president--are vastly disproportionate to the actual risk. The Secret Service has reason to be hypervigilant. Of the 42 men who have served as president, four were assassinated and another six survived at least one assassination attempt. If you're president, then, the odds of your being an assassination target are 23.8%, or nearly one in four. The likelihood of being killed in school is more like one in two million, or 0.00005%.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that the Columbine Review Commission, set up by Gov. Bill Owens in the wake of the 1999 massacre, is recommending that every Colorado high school set up a team to evaluate verbal and written threats. Perhaps these teams will approach the task with sensitivity and common sense. But if the stories we've seen from around the country are any indication, America's schoolchildren have more to fear from mass hysteria in the name of zero tolerance than from any lack of vigilance on the part of school officials.

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