‘Zero Tolerance’ in the Police State’s Schools

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“We end up punishing honor students to send a message to bad kids. But the data indicate that the bad kids are not getting the message.” ~ Professor Russell Skiba

What we are witnessing, thanks in large part to zero tolerance policies that were intended to make schools safer by discouraging the use of actual drugs and weapons by students, is the inhumane treatment of young people and the criminalization of childish behavior.

Ninth grader Andrew Mikel is merely the latest in a long line of victims whose educations have been senselessly derailed by school administrators lacking in both common sense and compassion. A freshman at Spotsylvania High School in Virginia, Andrew was expelled in December 2010 for shooting a handful of small pellets akin to plastic spit wads at fellow students in the school hallway during lunch period. Although the initial punishment was only for 10 days, the school board later extended it to the rest of the school year. School officials also referred the matter to local law enforcement, which initiated juvenile proceedings for criminal assault against young Andrew.

Andrew is not alone. Nine-year-old Patrick Timoney was sent to the principal’s office and threatened with suspension after school officials discovered that one of his LEGOs was holding a 2-inch toy gun. That particular LEGO, a policeman, was Patrick’s favorite because his father is a retired police officer. David Morales, an 8-year-old Rhode Island student, ran afoul of his school’s zero tolerance policies after he wore a hat to school decorated with an American flag and tiny plastic Army figures in honor of American troops. School officials declared the hat out of bounds because the toy soldiers were carrying miniature guns. A 7-year-old New Jersey boy, described by school officials as “a nice kid” and “a good student,” was reported to the police and charged with possessing an imitation firearm after he brought a toy Nerf-style gun to school. The gun shoots soft ping pong-type balls.

Things have gotten so bad that it doesn’t even take a toy gun to raise the ire of school officials. A high school sophomore was suspended for violating the school’s no-cell-phone policy after he took a call from his father, a master sergeant in the U.S. Army who was serving in Iraq at the time. A 12-year-old New York student was hauled out of school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with an erasable marker. In Houston, an 8th grader was suspended for wearing rosary beads to school in memory of her grandmother (the school has a zero tolerance policy against the rosary, which the school insists can be interpreted as a sign of gang involvement). Six-year-old Cub Scout Zachary Christie was sentenced to 45 days in reform school after bringing a camping utensil to school that can serve as a fork, knife or spoon. And in Oklahoma, school officials suspended a first grader simply for using his hand to simulate a gun.

What these incidents, all the result of overzealous school officials and inflexible zero tolerance policies, make clear is that we have moved into a new paradigm in America where young people are increasingly viewed as suspects and treated as criminals by school officials and law enforcement alike.

Adopted in the wake of Congress’ passage of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required a one-year expulsion for any child bringing a firearm or bomb to school, school zero tolerance policies were initially intended to address and prevent serious problems involving weapons, violence and drug and alcohol use in the schools. However, since the Columbine school shootings, nervous legislators and school boards have tightened their zero tolerance policies to such an extent that school officials are now empowered to punish all offenses severely, no matter how minor. Hence, an elementary school student is punished in the same way that an adult high school senior is punished. And a student who actually intends to harm others is treated the same as one who breaks the rules accidentally – or is perceived as breaking the rules.

For instance, after students at a Texas school were assigned to write a “scary” Halloween story, one 13-year-old chose to write about shooting up a school. Although he received a passing grade on the story, school officials reported him to the police, resulting in his spending six days in jail before it was determined that no crime had been committed. Equally outrageous was the case in New Jersey where several kindergartners were suspended from school for three days for playing a make-believe game of “cops and robbers” during recess and using their fingers as guns.

With the distinctions between student offenses erased, and all offenses expellable, we now find ourselves in the midst of what Time magazine described as a “national crackdown on Alka-Seltzer.” Indeed, at least 20 children in four states have been suspended from school for possession of the fizzy tablets in violation of zero tolerance drug policies. In some jurisdictions, carrying cough drops, wearing black lipstick or dying your hair blue are actually expellable offenses. Students have also been penalized for such inane “crimes” as bringing nail clippers to school, using Listerine or Scope, and carrying fold-out combs that resemble switchblades. A 13-year-old boy in Manassas, Virginia, who accepted a Certs breath mint from a classmate, was actually suspended and required to attend drug-awareness classes, while a 12-year-old boy who said he brought powdered sugar to school for a science project was charged with a felony for possessing a look-alike drug. Another 12-year-old was handcuffed and jailed after he stomped in a puddle, splashing classmates.

The American Bar Association has rightly condemned these zero tolerance policies as being “a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools confront.” Unfortunately, when challenged about the fact that under these draconian policies, a kid who shoots a spitball is punished the same as the kid who brings a gun to school, school officials often insist that their hands are tied. That rationale, however, falls apart on several counts.

First, such policies completely fail to take into account the student’s intentions, nor do they take into account the long-term damage inflicted on school children. For example, as a result of the criminal charges against him, Andrew Mikel, an honor student active in Junior ROTC and in his church who had hoped to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, can no longer be considered as an applicant.

Second, these one-strike-and-you’re-out policies have proven to be largely unsuccessful and been heavily criticized by such professional organizations as the National Association of School Psychologists: “[R]esearch indicates that, as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices.”

Third, with the emergence of zero tolerance policies, school officials have forsaken the time-honored distinction between punishment and discipline. Namely, that schools exist to educate students about their rights and the law and discipline those who need it, while prisons exist to punish criminals who have been tried and found guilty of breaking the law. And, as a result, many American schools now resemble prisons with both barbed wire perimeters and police walking the halls.

Fourth, such policies criminalize childish, otherwise innocent behavior and in many cases create a permanent record that will haunt that child into adulthood. Moreover, by involving the police in incidents that should never leave the environs of the school, it turns the schools into little more than a police state. For example, 9-year-old Michael Parson was suspended from school for a day and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation after mentioning to a classmate his intent to “shoot” a fellow classmate with a wad of paper. Despite the fact that the “weapon” considered suspect consisted of a wadded-up piece of moistened paper and a rubber band with which to launch it, district officials notified local police, suspended Michael under the school’s zero tolerance policy, and required him to undergo a psychological evaluation before returning to class. Incredibly, local police also went to Michael’s home after midnight in order to question the fourth grader about the so-called “shooting” incident.

Finally, these policies, and the school administrators who relentlessly enforce them, render young people woefully ignorant of the rights they intrinsically possess as American citizens. What’s more, having failed to learn much in the way of civic education while in school, young people are being browbeaten into believing that they have no true rights and government authorities have total power and can violate constitutional rights whenever they see fit.

There’s an old axiom that what children learn in school today will be the philosophy of government tomorrow. As surveillance cameras, metal detectors, police patrols, zero tolerance policies, lock downs, drug sniffing dogs and strip searches become the norm in elementary, middle and high schools across the nation, America is on a fast track to raising up an Orwellian generation – one populated by compliant citizens accustomed to living in a police state and who march in lockstep to the dictates of the government. In other words, the schools are teaching our young people how to be obedient subjects in a totalitarian society.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send him mail] is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He is the author of The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).

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