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Zero-tolerance in schools: have we gone too far?

Categories: Parents in the Media, Wanna Fight About It?


I was appalled to read the story of Zachary Christie, the Newark, Delaware first-grader who was suspended last week for bringing his Cub Scout spork-type utensil to school so he could use it to eat his lunch.

A six-year old Cub Scout, who frequently wears a shirt and tie to school because it’s a way to express his excitement about being there, is now suspended and sentenced to reform school for 45 days while his mom scrambles to provide a homeschooling alternative. All because he was excited over his new combination fork-knife-spoon and wanted to use it at school.

Zero-tolerance weapons policies have been established in schools all over the U.S., set in place to protect kids in large part as backlash from the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings. Guns don’t belong in schools, and I think we can all agree on this.

But what’s disturbing is the lack of discretion. Is a spork-knife utensil wielded by a six-year-old the same as a semi-automatic rifle? To school officials, the answer is increasingly “yes.”

The whole thing smacks of the fear culture we’ve become caught in. We’re afraid to let our kids walk to school because we just know there’s a dark-windowed minivan lurking out there, ready to snatch our kids up after luring them over with pleas to help find lost pets. Kids playing outside? Same thing — unless they’re in a fenced back yard, chances are our kids don’t go outside alone. And I won’t even get into the whole crazy Swine Flu hysteria.

But I’m worried about the message we send our kids when they have to walk through a metal detector every day to get to school, and when a cherished pocketknife handed down from a grandparent brought to school for Show and Tell is treated the same way as a weapon wielded by a disturbed individual bent on hurting people. How are our kids going to understand what’s “good” and what’s “bad” if we treat them both the same way and paint them all with the same broad brush of fear?

There are two schools of thought here:

1. Zero-tolerance rules, taken to this extreme, are asinine. School administrators should be able to tell the difference in intent and adjust punishment accordingly. This kid wasn’t going to knife anybody — couldn’t a teacher just have confiscated the thing and sent it back home at the end of the day with a note to his mom?

2. Rules are rules. The kid broke the rules. He shouldn’t have brought a knife to school and his mom should have known better. There’s too much violence in schools anyway.

Where do you stand on zero-tolerance in your child’s school? Are we keeping our kids safe or have we gone too far?

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10 comments so far...

  • Zero tolerance is being totally misinterpreted and abused. I blame ignorance on the part of school administrators.

    Let’s talk about adults for a moment. When it comes to crimes, is there ANY such thing as zero tolerance? They tried that for a while with DUIs, but as we all know, that didn’t work out the way it was supposed to. They have tried it with child sex offenders (not letting them seek parole), but that has been vigorously fought by the bleeding hearts. If zero tolerance doesn’t make sense for adults, how can it make sense for little kids who can’t even be held accountable for understanding the rules / potential consequences?

    Let’s talk about criminal law for a moment. A criminal conviction requires proof of intent. If that’s been important in our criminal law history for centuries, how can we act like it isn’t relevant with little kids, who are the most likely to do wrong acts with innocent intentions?

    I understand the purpose of zero tolerance. Teachers and administrators don’t want to have to deal with arguments, begging, interfering parents, legal appeals, and the ACLU every time they try to issue a detention. But zero tolerance can mean something other than one punishment for all. It can mean 100% confiscation, a trip to the principal for a discussion of appropriate discipline at that level, a call to the parent, a report in the file. But who in their right mind would create a rule that ANY type of elementary-school violation could automatically result in a long suspension / reform school regardless of mal-intent, the child’s age and understanding, etc.? Who would write any such rule without some kind of escape valve? A totally un-creative or lazy educator, that’s who. Shame on them.

    I have seen so much of this nonsense, I am thinking maybe we need a law against setting a punishment in school without consideration of the underlying facts. If not for all punishments, then at least for those that can have a real impact on the child’s education or future.

    SKL  |  October 14th, 2009 at 11:36 am

  • We have gone too far, especially a 45-day sentence for a SIX YEAR OLD? The proper response, even in a zero-tolerance school, would be to bring it to the principal’s office, have a chat as to why it was being taken away, discuss with the parents the issue.

    Unless the boy is bringing it after being told not to, or this is the multiple offense, it’s too much.

    Expelling the girl who’s GUARDIAN sent the knife with the birthday cake was also wrong (the fact that the teacher used it, THEN reported her was unconscionable). Whole thing should have been sent to the principal, who should call the grandmother and explain the issue.

    The laws that apply at high schools should be modified for elementary to take into account the differences in ages.

    Mich  |  October 14th, 2009 at 11:41 am

  • I read an article while I was still pregnant - I believe it was on - about a child suspended from a midwestern school for drawing a picture of his father, a soldier, who was deployed. In this first grader’s rendering, his father was pictured in his duty uniform, carrying his service weapon - an M16A2 rifle.

    The inclusion of his father’s weapon is what got him suspended in violation of the zero tolerance for violence policy.

    Do I think that we, as a nation, have taken this too far? I thought that years ago when the first sexual harrassment suit was brought against a 6 year old for a peck on the cheek to a classmate.

    It’s beyond the pale ridiculous.

    Phe  |  October 15th, 2009 at 12:43 pm

  • If there is an actual weapon (or something that could be reasonably construed as such) in a kid’s possession, I think it is perfectly appropriate to send them home for the day while school officials and parents determine intent. However, it is ridiculous to suspend a good kid for over a month for an inadvertent infraction. Zero tolerance rules are meant to make parents feel like schools are doing something to curb violence. In reality they absolve the school administration from having to think or make judgment calls as they deal with student discipline problems. The reason this is attractive to school officials is clear: if something happens “on their watch” their career is likely over, regardless of the actual event and whether there was any realistic chance of preventing it.

    LMJN  |  October 16th, 2009 at 8:51 am

  • LMJN makes a decent point. If the child were taken to the office and mom or dad called to come pick up their child and have a chat with the principal about it, that seems reasonable.
    But expulsions & multi-day suspensions for 1st & 3rd graders over non-thinking actions is wrong.

    Mich  |  October 16th, 2009 at 12:28 pm

  • I just got a memo forbidding ALL food at ALL in-school celebrations of holidays and birthdays for my entire school system. Zero tolerance takes many forms, all of them asinine!

    Jennifer  |  October 24th, 2009 at 2:59 pm

  • Zero Tolerance means Zero Justice:

    Any laws that are based on Zero Tolerance are more out for revenge then actual working justice to improve humans from their flaws.

    These laws against school shooters are more about revenge then actually stopping it from occuring again.

    It’s typical Liberalism where they only focus on the emotional aspect of such laws/issues instead of looking at the wider picture of things.

    Mr Data  |  March 1st, 2010 at 2:29 pm

  • Hello, My name is Sara Monday, I have a 7 year old son who is in the first grade. I have had issues with school administration and teachers since my son was in Kindergarden. I was wondering if you had or knew of any studies or articles that could help me prepare a letter to my son’s school. I feel as though teachers and educators today are no prepared to handle the differnt types of behaviors that our children have today. I feel as though they simply want them to be perfect little robots and only point out what it is they need to work on and nothing that they have been doing a good job on. I do not want to come across as a parent who has the delusions that her son would never do anything wrong (chances are he did do something wrong), hoever, I want to come across as the educated parent that I am who sees a problem with our educational system. This is a new school for us this year in a new town, yet the issues are the same.

    So if you have any articles or studies that can help me in my quest I would greatly appreciate it.

    Thank you for your time and help,


    Sara  |  February 10th, 2011 at 2:40 pm

  • In the fall of 1999, six months after the Columbine massacre, one of my 6-yr old twins went to the bathroom after recess. He washed his hands (wow, that made me feel pretty proud), and dried them with the infamous rough brown paper towel — and then balled up the towel, tossed it as if it was an overhead basketball shot to the hoop, and said, “Boom” when it landed in the trashcan — as if it were a “bomb,” the school administrators said. The school administration said they have a “zero tolerance policy” against potential school violence. ?????? One of the other 6-yr old boys in the bathroom told the teacher that my son made a “bomb sound.” So they suspended my son. Ridiculous. Ridiculous. Ridiculous. We aren’t a perfectly pacifist family, but we are peaceful, cordial, and polite. What a ridiculously extreme, “zero tolerance” policy.

    This country has responded inappropriately on so many fronts. We have been, and continue to go, in the wrong direction.

    The only thing I could ever wish (and that I will never realize), is that my children could enjoy the simple life that we had as suburbanite children in the 1960s.

    Pamela Y  |  September 7th, 2011 at 6:14 pm

  • Appalling. How do you explain all that to a six year old?

    Talyaa Liera  |  September 7th, 2011 at 6:37 pm