Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead has written a commentary on zero tolerance policies that echoes many of the points I’ve made on this blog in my own posts:
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.
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.
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.
Read his commentary on LewRockwell.com.
Two more cases in the news – one from Virginia and one in New Jersey – should serve as wake-up calls that it is time to call for a nationwide moratorium on zero tolerance policies that may not make our schools safer, that criminalize normal child misbehavior, and that may ruin young lives.
Kevin Sieff reports:
Andrew Mikel II admits it was a stupid thing to do. In December, bored and craving attention, the 14-year-old used a plastic tube to blow small plastic pellets at fellow students in Spotsylvania High School. In one lunch period, he scored three hits.
“They flinched. They looked annoyed,” Mikel said.
The school district saw it as more than a childish prank. School officials expelled him for possession and use of a weapon, and they called a deputy sheriff to the scene, said Mikel and his father, Andrew Mikel Sr.
The younger Mikel, a freshman, said he was charged with three counts of misdemeanor assault.
The federal Gun-Free Schools Act mandates that schools expel students who take weapons, including hand guns, explosive devices and projectile weapons, to school. E-mail traffic among school officials showed they ruled that Mikel’s plastic tube, which was fashioned from a pen casing, met the definition of a projectile weapon because it was “used to intimidate, threaten or harm others.”
The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties organization, is appealing the case in state Circuit Court.
Read more about this case in the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, in the New Jersey case, Teresa Masterson and David Chang report:
A 7-year-old child allegedly shot a Nerf-style toy gun in his Hammonton, N.J., school Jan. 18. No one was hurt, but the pint-size softshooter now faces misdemeanor criminal charges.
Hammonton Police began an investigation into the “suspicious activity” at the Hammonton Early Childhood Education Center Jan. 18 after school officials alerted them to the incident.
The “gun” the child brought to school was a $5 toy gun, similar to a Nerf gun, that shoots soft ping pong type balls, according to the school’s superintendent.
Officials also say that there was no evidence of anyone being threatened. The child’s mother told school officials that she didn’t know her son brought the toy to school.
Dr. Dan Blachford, the Hammonton Board of Education superintendent, said the school has a zero tolerance policy.
Police charged the 7-year-old with possessing an imitation firearm in or on an education institution – a misdemeanor and a minor juvenile offense in New Jersey.
Read more about this case on NBC Philadelphia.
I have long called for the return of some common sense and abolition of zero-tolerance policies that have not accomplished their intended purpose and that create other problems, including possibly discriminatory application to disabled and minority students.
Zero-tolerance policies were enacted after the tragedy at Columbine. We now have more than ten years’ of experience with them. Where are the data showing that they have made schools safer? What is the evidence that they may have done harm?
It is time for a moratorium on enforcing zero-tolerance policies for offenses that are often normal child misbehavior until experts can all come together to review available data and ensure that we are not treating children like criminals for normal misbehavior and that such policies are not disenfranchising disabled and minority students from their right to a free appropriate public education.
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In the aftermath of the tragedy at Columbine, we saw a number of unhelpful zero tolerance policies implemented. In the aftermath of the VA Tech shooting, we saw clarifications to two federal laws, FERPA and HIPAA, about what schools could reveal to parents in the event that a student might pose a threat to themselves or others. Now in the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson that left six dead and 13 wounded, a psychologist-lawmaker is wisely calling for study and reflection before implementing any new laws.
Julian Pecquet reports:
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) is calling on Congress to throughly review the circumstances behind last weekend’s shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others before taking any legislative action.
Murphy, a psychologist and co-chairman of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, said the tragedy hit close to home for lawmakers but that it’s important for them to have all the answers before taking action.
“Right now you have a number of members of Congress who really want to do something, and they don’t know what they’re going to do so they are reaching out in the areas that they know something about — gun control, security systems, Internet control,” Murphy told The Hill.
“What I want to do is use the resources and talent of the Mental Health Caucus and sit down and review this with professionals once we have more data and then ask the questions: Were there gaps in care or in the process here that can be remedied by congressional action?” he said.
The debate over mental healthcare in the U.S. has resurfaced in the wake of last weekend’s shooting because the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, is widely believed to have been mentally ill. He was removed from Pima Community College and his parents were told he wouldn’t be allowed back until a mental health expert had assessed him, but it appears he was never evaluated or treated.
Murphy said a congressional review could uncover multiple possible breakdowns that could then be effectively addressed: “What was the school aware of? Did they make referrals for counseling, for therapy? Did someone follow through? What were the parents aware of? What were the law enforcement agencies aware of? Was there any involuntary commitment for psychiatric care? Was there any drug and alcohol treatment?”
Read more in The Hill.
Image credit: Picture of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from Wikimedia Commons
Alan Riquelmy reports on another zero tolerance case – this one in Georgia – where lives may be ruined by rigid application of policies:
A mother and daughter face drug charges after Baker Middle School officials found Ibuprofen in the girl’s purse, Columbus police said.
Principal Marvin Crumbs learned Monday morning that the 12-year-old might have a knife in her purse. As he searched through her purse, he found a bottle of 12 pills, reports state.
The bottle was labeled as Ibuprofen, 800 milligrams with 15 tablets. It had 11 whole pills and one pill broken in half. The medication from Martin Army Community Hospital had no patient or doctor’s name on it, police said.
According to state law, Ibuprofen is classified as a dangerous drug if a single dose is more than 200 milligrams. Pharmacist Terry Hurley, owner of Dinglewood Pharmacy, said 200 milligrams is the cap for over-the-counter Ibuprofen sales. Dosages that are 400 and 800 milligrams are prescription only, he said.
Officials contacted the girl’s 35-year-old mother, who told the school she gave her daughter the pills. The mother also said that she knows a nurse who works on Fort Benning who gave her the pills, police report.
School policy states that school officials must contact police when any drugs are found on campus.
The mother was charged with distributing a dangerous drug. The daughter was charged with possession of a dangerous drug, police said.
So the mother and daughter may wind up with serious criminal records or face jail over this? Is there really no option to simply call the mother and child in and educate them and/or give them a warning?
Some days I really despair about what goes on in schools.
In yet what appears to be another case of zero tolerance over-reaction or flat out abuse of anti-terrorism statutes, the Ridgeview Charter Middle School in Atlanta not only suspended an autistic 14-year old with an IQ of 75 for a stick figure drawing of him pointing a gun at his teacher, but he has been charged by the police with a “terrorist threat,” which is a felony.
In case you missed the limited news coverage a few weeks ago, here’s a report on the Shane Finn case so that you can get some of the background:
Adam Baldwin provides some details on the relevant laws.