Zero tolerance policies have sparked controversy and headlines since their popular inception in the early to mid ’90’s; from then until now we have seen schools ban a variety of things. The enforcement of such bans, the items and incidents included in that enforcement have littered the headlines for over a decade; some of the more outlandish involved a school ban on chains, causing the suspension of a middle school-er for a 10 inch key chain attached to a Tweety change purse, the suspension of a 5 year old for carrying a nail file in her “big girl” purse. The kindergartener was made to sign a letter explaining her behavior when, as her mother pointed out, she had just learned to write her name. Children have faced suspensions and expulsions for being in possession of 1 dose or tablet of over the counter medication such as Advil, Tylenol, Midol, mouthwash, for being in possession of things like a Swiss army knife or a stake knife, put in a child’s lunch to cut food. And by the way that’s all they did, or tired to do, with it. One school went as far as to ban elementary school students from drawing guns on paper depicting cops and robbers. Toy guns even water guns have bought about the wrath of zero tolerance. But one of the most disturbing of cases involved a young man who took a binder, containing a knife, away from a suicidal classmate in a hallway; he put the binder in his locker then informed the teacher in his next class. The teacher subsequently asked him to retrieve the binder; before he knew it, the young man was facing a lengthy suspension from school. After battling legally with the school system it was determined that the boy’s work be sent to him at home so he could complete the semester. Yet the instructions were often vague, incomplete or misleading; this was his reward for being a good Samaritan.
More and more minors are finding themselves behind bars because of misguided enforcement of what should be dubbed the zero common sense policies, like the 14 year old arrested for strong armed robbery after he was accused of stealing $2 from a fellow student. He spent 6 weeks in adult jail until 60 Minutes showed up to do a feature on the story; then the charges were dropped. A 13 year old given the assignment to write a scary Halloween story, spent 6 days in jail because characters in the story shot students at school; it took that long for anyone to realize no crime had been committed. A 6 year old boy made headlines in 2008 for sexual harassment after, what the school called a misunderstanding, lead them to call police, because the young man, imitating another student, tapped a female classmate on the behind. No charges were filed; however, the boy’s mother commented that his innocence had been lost. A south Chicago lunchroom food fight got at least a dozen kids a trip to the police station for mug shots and fingerprints; the charge: misdemeanor reckless conduct.
And it is getting worse police nation wide seem to have caught the same lack of common sense bug; in 2005 they hauled off a 5 year old for a temper tantrum. And it was caught on video; according to the lawyer, hired by the child’s family, after being handcuffed, she was then taken to a police car, ankle shackled and kept from her mother for 3 hours. A 14 year old was arrested for refusing to stop texting in math class; officers frisked her, finding the phone she denied having, and cited her for disorderly conduct. This year in New York a 12 year old was arrested for doodling on a desk, frisked, perp walked out of the school, taken to the police station, handcuffed to a pole. When her mother arrived she was told to go home that she would be contacted to pick up the teen.
As if these cases weren’t tragic enough, looking at what schools are doing in the name of supposed student safety, now we have zero tolerance policies that are leading to injury and even death. Case in point, 11 year old dies in ’02 because school policy prevented using his inhaler. The Dr. Phil show who showcased, as a guest, the young girl arrested for writing on her desk, also highlighted incidents in schools involving special needs students, even those in specialized schools where students were incurring bruises, carpet burns and other injuries as a result of restraining techniques utilized in schools across the country. One shocking video showed a 14 year old being dragged on his knees, by the arm to a seclusion room; the light goes on and blood droplets can be seen on the floor and wall. The nonverbal, autistic boy ended up with a crushed finger, presumably slammed in the door.
Another school had a special needs student die because of a restraining hold gone horribly wrong. Apparently when the boy refused to do as he was told he, in his 5 foot 130 pound frame, were pinned to the floor be his nearly 6 foot 200 plus pound teacher; despite repeated pleas he could not breath, they waited until he stopped moving to put him back in his chair. Only then did someone notice something was wrong and call 911 and the child’s guardian; hospital personnel commented they had never seen a crush injury so bad that did not involve a car accident. Worse still it was determined the teacher did nothing wrong and no one was ever charged with a crime. Conflicting experts present on the show argued the use of similar restraint techniques; one stating that such tools are often used as part of the child’s therapy, the other saying that 1- the type of restraint used on the young boy should never be done on the floor and 2- only be done as a last resort.
Stories like the ones recounted here are pandemic of adults without problem solving skills; you don’t call the police for a kid doodling on a desk, you don’t frisk a 12 year old in tight pants, making them feel violated, make them fear strip search, perp walk them out of school then tell their mother they cannot see them. The young girls lawyer believes the school was attempting to have her charged under New York’s graffiti law; however to be charged under that law you must use spray paint or an indelible marker and do at least $250 of damage. Even if the teacher did not know that about the law, as the lawyer indicated they should, the police defiantly knew and arrested her anyway. Further minors are not to be questioned by police without a parent present; they violated this child’s rights by excluding her mother from the process. All the school really had to do was give her detention, make her clean the desk, make her clean the whole classroom full of desks, not give her the idea she has done something criminal for childish behavior.
If a kid refuses to stop texting in class, confiscate the phone, give them detention and make the parent come and retrieve the item. If you have a kindergartener throwing a tantrum your first call should be to a parent or guardian to come pick up the child; then have a meeting with the child’s parents about the steps that need to be taken to insure that child’s success in school. And if you have a parent who refuses a meeting or seems not to care perhaps it is time for a call to social services, but only after repeated attempts to work with the parents have failed. For the young boy who wrote the story, again you talk to the parents, have him talk to the school counselor, monitor him to determine if he is a threat, not just assume he is; aside from Halloween theme, maybe what made it a scary story for him is he feared something like that happening at school. There was no need to involve the police unless the story showed clear intent, by this young man to do harm or named names.
Much of the other stories are teachable moments involving small children; you show the elementary school age child the dangers of a nail file, take it away, have the parent pick it up and make sure they don’t bring it back. The knives in the lunches same thing, being sure to inform parents of the potential hazards; better yet include a “knives as utensils” section in the form many parents and students are required to sign at the start of kindergarten or in the student handbook, so parents know not to put those things in their child’s lunch. You specify the maximum length of chain allowed with the stipulation that it may be amended if a student behaves recklessly or intentionally harms another person or persons, not just suspend a student for being in possession of a change purse. You confiscate the Swiss army knife, not demand that a 6 year old attend a reform school because he was excited to try the utensils at lunch. You talk to a 6 year old about keeping his hands to himself not try to arrest him for sexual harassment because he tapped a girl on the behind, especially when you find out he was imitating someone else. Many looking at the implementation of these guidelines say that they were put in place because school officials don’t want to enforce rules or discipline. Anyone looking at this would be inclined to agree; people working in positions of authority need to realize, yes you have to enforce rules and discipline, if you work in a school. You have to put people in place that have that decision-making capability and then train them how best to use it.
The police in these situations are even more inept handcuffing doodlers, 5 year olds with temper tantrums and wayward cellphone users, not even driving, never stopping to question what they are being asked to do. No one is saying no individuals who walked into scenarios such as these and more would say are you serious; why should the police be any different? They should have radioed in said they were not arresting the kindergartener for a temper tantrum that they were advising the school to call parents. They should have informed the school that they had no grounds to arrest the doodler, because the graffiti law did not apply and why; it is a mystery how the disorderly conduct citation, for the classroom text-er, was considered valid, not only in terms of the situation, but without parental notification. Strong armed robbery for the alleged theft of $2; who came up with that charge? Petty theft would be more appropriate particularly in the absence of threats or weapons; plus, the charges had been filed, why was this kid still in jail 6 weeks later and adult jail at that? At 14 considering the amount supposedly stolen and the circumstances, he should have been in a juvenile facility. 6 days in jail because a kid wrote a scary story for Halloween, at his teachers request; it took 6 days for the police to figure out there had been no crime committed. Did they not think they would have gotten a call if their had been a shooting, that the media would have been all over it?
It is one thing for schools to be wringing their hands, seemingly losing their minds, but what is wrong with the police departments employing some common sense recommending the cleaning of desks, confiscation of items and notification of parents? Then if you have a school or a district that keeps calling you, have an officer go in and discuss alternatives with school administrators. You don’t just blindly follow suite with what the school asks of you, because a lot of these officers are not school resource officers assigned there, but actual police officers being pulled away from real crime prevention, people in need or real and immediate help to come deal with things the school should be handling. A commenter on the Chicago lunchroom story claimed it wasn’t just slinging food that children were lobbing apples and oranges, causing welts; it was absolute mayhem leaving one female teacher more afraid than she had ever been. So in this case call the police to restore order, have them handcuff or restrain them until parents are called and pick up their child, not have them booked on whatever charge someone can dream up only to suspend them from school anyway. There was no evidence utensils were thrown inciting injury, no one lost an eye, no brain injuries reported from blows to the head by fruit. To say nothing of where was the cafeteria supervision that the first person to throw food was sent to the office, possibly picked up by parents, preventing the escalation involving half or the whole of the lunch room.
In their quest to keep students safe, in the quest to stop the violence like Columbine, no one has noticed it doesn’t work. Not one zero tolerance policy put in place before then prevented it and not one after has curtailed school shootings since. It did not prevent the second grader from bringing a gun to school and shooting a fellow student in the face. What it has done is increase the number extended suspensions and expulsions; what it has done is derail educations, increased the dropout rate, and given enough time, increased the criminal element, when kids not allowed to finish their education see no other option. All of this not for guns, knives, attempting to commit violent acts, but using mouthwash, taking over the counter medication as prescribed, cutting food, owning a change purse, writing a story, drawing a picture. What it has done, in addition to wasting police officers’ time, is clog the courts with erroneous cases, kept schools from recognizing real threats. Not only that, it has given defacto license for the abuse and mistreatment of special needs students even in specialized classrooms, specialized schools, the fear of violence has now caused another type of needless death.
What has worked when it comes to preventing violence in school is awareness, teaching kids to speak up if they hear of a threat against the school, if they see a gun, having 1-800 numbers kids can call anonymously. What has worked, school administrators being aware that yes, it can happen, being on the lookout for troubling situations, problem students, intervening, getting them help before things turn tragic. What has worked, school resource officers, police in the school projecting a sense of safety, a measure that has also been shown to cut down on instances of drugs and bullying. The latter is often seen as a precursor to school shootings. These proven methods likewise have the benefit of not targeting the innocent, not wasting time while simultaneously make school safer for all, with almost not threat or loss of life, with next to no bodily injury to students, a much surer bet than zero tolerance any day.