Zero Tolerance Run Amok

Zero Tolerance Run Amok

Three recent news stories reveal that "zero tolerance" policies in our schools have truly run amok.Jay Stoneking portrait head and shoulders.jpg

In Boston, Massachusetts, Erin, a 17-year-old high school honor student, received a call from a friend saying that she had been drinking at a party. The friend asked for a ride home and Erin obliged. Erin arrived at the party at the same time as the police. Even though the responding police officer personally wrote a statement indicating that Erin had no alcohol and had not been drinking, the school found that Erin had violated its banned substances policy. Accordingly, she was suspended for five days and removed as captain of the school's volleyball team.

In Anaheim, California, a 16-year-old arrived wore an NRA shirt depicting a deer hunter and a rifle. The shirt was gift from her father. Officials determined that the shirt violated the school's dress code because it promoted or depicted violence. As a result, she was ordered to take off the shirt or face discipline.

In Coventry, Rhode Island, a key chain fell out of backpack belonging to a 12-year-old middle schooler. The key chain, which he had won at an arcade, was about the size of a quarter and shaped like a gun. This was found to violate the  school's zero tolerance policy toward guns. As a result of this infraction, the boy was suspended for three days and required to miss a scheduled field trip.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the very real dangers that schools are facing in our increasingly violent culture. But these dangers must be balanced against two other, equally important considerations. First, our children "do not shed their constitutional the schoolhouse gate." Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969). Second, overzealous enforcement of these kinds of policies is counterproductive and, in fact, can end up harming our children.

Constitutional rights are just as important in our schools as they are in any other setting. Children still enjoy basic rights of free speech, assembly, and religious expression. No one doubts that schools have an important job to do and that these precious rights are less stringent within the school's four walls. But the fact remains that schools must be conscious of these rights when writing and enforcing their policies.

The case involving the NRA shirt is a poignant example. Unfortunately, policies aimed at preventing violence can also be used as a thin veil for engaging in viewpoint-based discrimination. Only six months ago a middle schooler in Logan,  West Virginia was arrested and suspended for wearing an NRA shirt. All charges were later dropped. One is left to wonder if the episode was promoted by a genuine concern for safety or simply by an objection to the NRA. Not only must policies be constitutionally written, they must also be constitutionally enforced.

News stories like these also raise a legitimate question: is over-the-top enforcement of anti-drug and anti-violence policies actually counterproductive? Is it actually harming the cause?

I don't have any data, but my gut strongly suggests that the answer is yes. What is the takeaway from Erin's story? That helping a friend is wrong? That it wouldzerotolerance.jpg have been better to let her friend drink and drive? Let's be honest: did Erin learn any anti-drug lessons from the actions of the school district? Of course not. If anything, the ordeal probably left Erin deeply hurt and disillusioned.

And what about the boy in Coventry, Rhode Island? What's a tweenager supposed to learn from facing a suspension and missing a field trip--all because of a key chain? Not surprisingly, he's upset and he's greatly disappointed that he has to forego a field trip. He's also worried that he'll fall behind in his class work. Is all of this angst teaching the boy anything about school violence? Again, the answer is a resounding no. The reality is that the boy wasn't a threat to begin with. Invoking the school's anti-violence policy under these circumstances did far more harm than good.

I'm pleased to report that the school in Anaheim reversed itself a few days ago. It seems that an NRA shirt is not promoting violence. The school even issued an apology. But the other two children are still facing stiff punishments and uncertain futures that compel us to take a long, hard look at this issue.

Enough is enough. "Zero tolerance" doesn't mean that school officials should stick their heads in the sand when their policies are misapplied. Anaheim did the right thing by reversing itself. Erin's school in Boston should do the same. Coventry too. The takeaway for me is that schools should apply a common sense approach to enforcing their policies. If applying the policy to a particular situation isn't furthering the goal of the policy, then, for heaven's sake, don't apply it! Unfortunately, if these three news stories are any indication, we've got a long way to go...