should have been a minor
incident at an Ocala, Fla., elementary school has attracted
national attention because of the school’s response.
boys, aged 9 and 10, were charged with second-degree felonies and
taken away in handcuffs by the police because they drew
stick figures depicting violence against a third student.
was no act of violence, no weaponry. According to news reports,
the arrested children had no prior history of threatening the student
depicted in the drawing. The parents were not advised or consulted.
The school’s immediate response was to call the police and level
charges “of making a written threat to kill or harm another person.”
incident was not an aberration but
one of three similar occurrences in the Florida school system
during the same week. In another case, a 6-year-old was led away
in handcuffs by police. And those three incidents are only the ones
that managed to attract media attention.
indication that the incident is not an aberration: The police have
adamantly and repeatedly defended the slapping of cuffs and felony
charges onto the 9 and 10-year-olds.
young children for a crayon drawing, not unlike the games of hangman
we once all played, is the ultimate meaning and logic of Zero Tolerance.
tolerance involves the application of law in an extreme and uncompromising
manner to any activity, violent or not, that is deemed to be anti-social.
applies to everyone, regardless of circumstances such as age, intent
or prior history.
tolerance has spread through society largely due to the reasonable
fear with which people have responded to the school shootings at
Columbine and the still-stunning tragedy of Sept. 11. The fear is
reasonable. But the ongoing response is not.
one – not the police, not the government, no school official –
has the right to brutalize a child for using crayons. And the people
who reasonably supported zero tolerance as a way to make schools
safer never envisioned a police state in which 6-year-olds are handcuffed.
are finally saying “NO!”
battle against zero tolerance is being waged on the local and state
level. One such local battlefield is in Katy,
Texas. One such parent is Derek
Hoggett. His 13-year-old daughter Gabrielle was suspended from
school due to a butter knife packed in her lunch. Because of braces,
Gabrielle needed the knife – a legal item – to cut an apple. No
violence nor threat occurred.
explained, “She was given the harshest punishment for a first offense
even though school officials admitted in a letter … that she was
a student with exemplary behavior and high academic standing.”
school district has reportedly investigated “2,149 criminal incidents,
issued 779 citations and made 108 arrests” in the past several months.
of the avalanche of investigations, Fred Hink – a spokesman for
the parents’ rights organization Katy Zero Tolerance – accuses
the school official of having no “common sense.” He claims “they
do not appropriately address issues such as disability considerations,
due process and the long-range effects of placing children in alternative
alternative education programs to which children like Gabrielle
are often transferred are widely criticized as substandard and stigmatizing
to the child. Thus, the transfer damages their futures.)
conflict over zero tolerance in schools is also moving into state
Texas legislature may provide an indication of the sort of debate
that may soon confront many other lawmakers. Several bills to alter
the Texas Education Code have been introduced. Some strengthen zero
tolerance; others weaken it.
an example of the latter: State Sen. Jon Lindsay is shepherding
a bill that requires a student to “knowingly and willingly commit
an offense” before he or she can be punished.
is not clear which side will win in Texas. It is clear, however,
that the application of zero tolerance to young children is evolving
into a national debate. That debate is being driven by parents whose
children have been criminalized by an education system.
are the parents demanding? There is no one set of requests, but
some demands appear repeatedly. First and foremost, the parents
want immediate involvement in severe forms of discipline. This means
the parents of the aforementioned 9 and 10-year-olds would have
been allowed to discipline their children before police were called
to impose felony charges. Gabrielle’s father could have explained
to her that butter knives were inappropriate instead of the school
also want an appeals process. Moreover, the parents of Katy request
“the establishment of a civilian oversight committee” to review
police actions against school children. It is difficult to criticize
parents who demand “due process” for children who are too young
to speak for themselves. To me, those parents live up to the best
definition of being a mother and father.
process is a legal term and seems out of place for those of us who
still view schools as places where literacy and math skills are
those who call police rather than parents, who lay felony charges
rather than issue suspensions, who damage a child’s life over a
butter knife they know was an innocent mistake … these people
bear responsibility for making the legal terms appropriate.
so, let the debate rage. Let it continue until a 6-year-old is never
handcuffed by police again.
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century
(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).