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Zero Tolerance
By: Bryce Carter - 3/27/2003

Many school districts have adopted “zero tolerance” policies that include: drugs, violence, sexual harassment and others. Zero tolerance makes zero sense.

A true story …

Zero Tolerance in the possession Drugs … legal or otherwise …

A child attending an elementary school (in the San Jose Unified School District) brought an inhaler to school for her asthma. Her physician instructed the child to carry her legally prescribed inhalant medication with her at all times, to be used whenever an asthmatic event occured. Because of a “zero tolerance” school policy, the child was caught with the medication and the child was imediatly dismissed from class and sent to the school nurse. The nurse demanded that the child surrender her medication to the nurse; the child was then told that she would have to contact the school nurse to obtain access to her medication if and when she had an asmatic episode. (Can you imagine running to the nurse’s office from the playground when you can’t even breathe)? Fortunately, the child held here ground and demanded that she speak to her mother. Later, Mother and Child spent the next 3 hours in the nurses office negotiating how to get around the school policy. They were forced to get a letter of explanation from their doctor in order to give the child permission to have the child’s medication on her person at all times, instead of having to run to the nurse’s office. We are unaware of hardened drug offenders attending grammar school that can disguise illegal drugs as a prescription inhaler. If there are any out there, please let us know so that we can be informed. In any case, the number of offenders does not warrant such a drug policy.

Schools are so afraid of drug related problems, that they install Nazi-like policies on all our children. As a result, normal children are put at risk of being expelled for the mere mention of drugs legal or illegal. School lockers have either been removed, or abandoned because schools are afraid that children will traffic drugs through them. Law-breakers will always find a way to get around a policy no matter how stringent. What you end up with is an epidemic of children having to carry around heavy backpacks thereby causing injury and spine deformation. A simple bottle of aspirin can cause a family to suffer the consequences of a school policy gone awry. These policies only inconvenience the law-abiding citizen. Drug offenders will never openly display a bottle of illegal drugs. A better policy, would be to examine children exhibiting the behavior of drug related abuse.

At its most extreme, evocation of zero tolerance has resulted in an 11-year-old being hauled off in a police van for packing a plastic knife in her lunchbox to cut chicken; a 14-year-old held in an adult jail and charged with "strong-armed" theft for stealing $2 from his classmate; a fifth-grader expelled for a year for hiding razor blades from a friend he thought might use them to harm another; a fourth grader suspended for wearing a Tweety Bird chain on his neck; and, in a tale that would be comic if it weren't true, a 6-year-old cited for "sexual harassment" for running out of the bath naked in his own home to tell the bus driver to wait for him.

A state NAACP executive board member was quoted in a local newspaper as saying that her 17-year-old son, who had a cold, was kicked out of class after taking a tissue off his teacher's desk without permission. Under the new statute, that act could constitute strike one. "If this rule were in effect this year, he wouldn't be graduating," she said. "He'd be on strike seven."

A 17-year-old honors student in Arkansas begins his senior year with an even more ominous cloud over his head. His college scholarship is in danger because of a 45-day sentence to an alternative school. His offense? An arbitrary search of his car by school officials in the spring revealed no drugs, but a scraper and pocketknife that his father had inadvertently left there the night before when he was fixing the rearview mirror. Despite anguished pleas of extenuating circumstances by the desperate father, the school system has so far adamantly insisted that automatic punishments for weapon possession in school are inviolate.

In a sense, though, this student should consider himself fortunate. At least he wasn't arrested. In a similar incident in Florida, an 18-year-old National Merit scholar was pulled out of class, handcuffed, charged with a felony and banned from her graduation. A police officer had passed by her car and spotted a kitchen knife lying in the passenger seat. She had left it there accidentally after using it the weekend before to open boxes. Although no one disputed her explanation, her principal, citing the need for "fairness," and declined her request for leniency.

A school in Michigan flagged a sixth-grader as a potential violence risk -- and told his parents they had to meet with the school's "Hazard and Risk Assessment Team" -- after he suggested that one way to prevent school shootings would be to allow teachers to carry guns.

A school in Kansas suspended a seventh-grader for three days after he drew a picture of a confederate flag. The flag, said officials, violated the school's policy against "racially divisive" material.

A school in New Jersey suspended two kindergarten students after they played "cops and robbers" on the playground, pointed their fingers at each other like guns, and shouted "bang bang!"

A school in Maryland suspended a student after he drew a crude picture of a gun on a piece of paper. The nine-year-old was charged with violating the school's anti-weapon policy.

A public school suspended students for snorting Kool-Aid

AUSTELL, GA -- A sixth-grader has been suspended from school for 10 days because the 10-inch chain on her Tweety bird wallet violates the school district's zero-tolerance weapons policy, the Associated Press reported. According to the AP, Ashley Smith, an 11-year-old student at Garrett Middle School in suburban Atlanta, received the maximum punishment Tuesday. The chain connects her wallet to her key rings

  • Nationally, students have been subjected to disciplinary action for bringing Midol or Advil to school, bringing a water pistol to school, and taking a slurp of Listerine during school hours. Education Week, October 23, 1996.
  • In Philadelphia public schools, 33 kindergartners were suspended in 2002 under a tough new discipline policy. The New York Times, December 14, 2002.
  • An 11-year-old died of asthma because his school's zero tolerance policy prevented him from carrying an inhaler. The New York Times, November 19, 2002.
  • In 1998, African-American students comprised 17.1 percent of the student population nationally, but 32.7 percent of those suspended. Racial Profiling and Punishment in US. Public Schools, 2001.

A second-grader from Alexandria, La., was booted for bringing her grandfather's gold-plated pocket watch to school; the timepiece had a tiny knife attached.

Ben Ratner was kicked out of Blue Ridge Middle School in Loudoun County, Va., for four months for persuading a suicidal classmate to turn over her knife. According to the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, a civil-liberties organization, a fellow student passed Ben a note saying she had brought a knife to school, hidden it in her notebook, and was contemplating suicide. After Ben persuaded her to give him the notebook containing the knife, he placed the notebook in his locker until he could take it home and have his mother speak to his friend's parents. However, when a fellow student informed school officials of the knife in Ben's locker, he was immediately suspended.

Eighty-seven percent of all schools now have zero-tolerance policies for alcohol and drugs, often resulting in mandatory expulsion, no matter how small the infraction. Ninety-one percent of schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies for bringing a weapon to school.

David Silverstein, 13, was inspired to build a model rocket after seeing the movie "October Sky", a biography of NASA rocket scientist Homer Hickam. The boy took his rocket, made out of a potato chip canister and fueled with three match heads, to his Glendale, Ariz., school, where it was found in a search of his locker. School officials classified the toy as a "weapon" and suspended him for the rest of the year based on its "zero-tolerance" weapons policy.

Administrators saw three students at the Union Colony Charter School in Greeley, Colo., playing with a water gun. According to the school's interpretation of the state's "zero tolerance" weapons law -- which mandates suspension of students who "carry, bring, use or possess a firearm or firearm facsimile at school" -- the unnamed boys have been suspended. According to standard practice in "weapons" cases, the boys must now face expulsion hearings.

If you attend school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, don't carry a toy key fob shaped like a gun. A 7-year-old boy was suspended in school for carring one of these because it violates the district's "zero tolerance" policy on "weapon possession".

Four kindergarten children were suspended for three days after pointing their fingers at each other while playing cops and robbers. (The Patriot Ledger, April 18, 2000).

A fourth grader has been suspended and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation after telling a classmate he was going to "shoot" another student with a wad of paper launched form a rubber band. (The New York Times, April 27, 2000).

A girl is booted out of school for 10 days in 1997 for chucking into her backpack a butter knife she had used to pry lunch money out of her piggy bank. (The Morning Call, January 23, 2000)

A 10-year-old girl at McElwain Elementary in Thornton, Colo., was one of a group of girls who "repeatedly" asked a certain boy on the playground if he liked them. The boy complained to a teacher, so school administrators, citing the district's "zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy", decided to suspend her.

Much of the criticism is aimed at the districts with the most rigid policies. Kids have been kicked out of school for possession of Midol, Tylenol, Alka Seltzer, cough drops and Scope mouthwash - contraband that violates zero-tolerance, anti-drug policies. Students have been expelled for Halloween costumes that included paper swords and fake spiked knuckles, as well as for possessing rubber bands, slingshots and toy guns - all violations of anti-weapons policies.

But policies vary widely on the severity of the punishment and the discretion that school principals have.

In Wichita, 16-year-old Jeremy Oliver had a 3.64 GPA, was ranked 34th in a class of 327, and was a member of the National Honor Society and the football team. And he also happened to compete in paintball tournaments.

While taking a final exam, Oliver was pulled out of class by an assistant principal who told him a gun was found in his car by a school parking lot attendant. He had competed in a paintball tournament the night before and had carelessly left his paintball gun sticking out of a duffel bag in his back seat.

But schools are not always well prepared for dealing with allergy or asthma emergencies. Concerned about illegal substances, many schools have “zero tolerance” drug control policies, requiring all medications to be kept in the nurse’s office or, if there is no nurse, with a senior official of the school. While some children can safely wait minutes to hours before getting epinephrine or a puff from an asthma inhaler, others can die within minutes if they don’t get their medication.

The situation has experts and parents concerned that the nearly 5 million U.S. students with asthma could find it hard to get their medication inhalers while at school.

“We’re seeing situations in which an asthmatic child’s inhaler is locked up in a drawer in the school office — and the key to that drawer is with the vice principal who isn’t even in the building that day,” says Dr. Michael Welch, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ section on Allergy and Immunology.

"We have a policy that any type of replica of a gun is not allowed on campus grounds," said Deena Garvin, Wichita Public School District spokesperson. "If a student is found with any type of weapon with an intention to do harm, or that can do harm, he is automatically expelled for 186 days-one full school year."

  • A 13-year-old Oregon boy was suspended for taking a swig of Scope after lunch.
  • A 13-year-old Texas girl, suspended for carrying a bottle of Advil, detected in her backpack by a drug-sniffing dog.
  • A seventh-grader in West Virginia, suspended for giving a zinc cough lozenge to a friend.
  • An eighth-grader in Pennsylvania, suspended for trying to get laughs by sucking on an Alka-Seltzer tablet.
  • A 17-year-old Georgia girl, suspended for bringing an African tribal knife to her world history class.
  • A 5-year-old Virginia boy, suspended for taking his mother's beeper on a kindergarten trip to the pumpkin patch.
  • An 11-year-old North Carolina boy, suspended for passing around a home-grown chili pepper that caused another child's face to swell up.
  • And another North Carolina boy, 6-year-old Johnathan Prevette, who made headlines for planting an unwelcome kiss on the cheek of a first-grade classmate.

When Annette Locke bought her 5-year-old son Jordan a firefighter costume for Halloween, she never imagined the five-inch plastic ax that came with it would be considered a weapon.

On the day that he prowdly took his costume to school Annette got an 8:45 a.m. call at work on Friday from her son's principal.

There was a "serious problem" with Jordan's Halloween costume, serious enough to suspend him from kindergarten for a day for violating the Deer Lakes School District's weapons policy.

Kindergartener Jordan Locke in his firefighter's costume. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

More links: http://www.cfif.org/htdocs/legal_issues/legal_activities/litigation/zero_tolerance_escambia.htm

Asthmatic Inhalers …


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