eight-year-olds were charged with "making
terroristic threats" for playing with paper guns.
We've noted with amusement several cases of schools' "zero tolerance" policies gone nuts, including the January story of an eight-year-old Jonesboro, Ark., boy suspended from school for brandishing a piece of chicken and last week's Irvington, N.J., case in which two eight-year-olds were charged with "making terroristic threats" for playing with paper guns. These stories have become so common, though, that the joke is starting to get old--and their frequency leads us to suspect that they're something more than isolated cases of bureaucratic idiocy.
Just this weekend, we read about a case in West Monroe, La., in which an eight-year-old third-grader at Lenwil Elementary School was suspended from school for drawing weapons. We mean drawing them--as in illustrating, sketching, depicting. No actual weapons were involved. According to a report in Saturday's Monroe News-Star:
Edward Davis, principal of Lenwil, described the drawing that landed the pupil in-school suspension on Thursday as upsetting. It is a soldier holding a canteen in one hand and a knife in the other.
The 8-year-old honor student also drew a fort with a list of stocked inventory. Among items listed on the drawing were 5,000 knives, 200 M-16s, 109 pistols and 67 first aid kits.
Raleigh Walker, the unnamed boy's father, told the paper that "his son drew the picture as a tribute to a relative who was in the Army." But the principal said, "We have zero tolerance for drawings with guns. We can't tolerate anything that has to do with guns or knives." The boy's punishment was comparatively mild; he was placed on "in-school suspension."
Then we read a column in which Joe Soucheray of the St. Paul Pioneer Press tells the following story:
The other day I got a note from a guy whose second-grader threw a snowball on the playground. The second-grader was hauled to the school office and told to fill out a "restitution form," on which the child was expected to come up with two ways to address his "inappropriate behavior." One of the ways the kid came up with was to "stand on the blacktop." The other way he came up with was "play with balls," meaning soccer balls and basketballs and the like. Smart kid. He was going to do his best to stay away from snow. Well, a week went by and the father called me back to say that the kid was in trouble again.
"Puddles," the dad told me.
"He was standing on the black top and the puddle got the best of him," the dad said. "He made a snowball from the mushy stuff near the puddle and then rolled the snowball down the slide into the puddle. They hauled him in again."
What in the world is going on? In many of these cases, cops or school officials explain, with no evident irony, that they're trying to prevent another Columbine. Defending the Louisiana boy's suspension, Willie Isby, director of Child Welfare and Attendance for the Ouachita Parish School System, declared, "The punishment is not that bad in this case, in light of the fact that we have been having all these killings in schools." And in the Irvington case, superintendent Ernest Smith said: "Being that kids are being shot in schools across the country, children have to be taught they can't say certain words in public."
One of the paper-brandishing Garden State moppets is reported to have stood up during class and announced, "I'm going to kill you all." That's certainly an inappropriate thing to say, and we don't quarrel with the idea that an eight-year-old who says it in class ought to be disciplined. But it is an insane overreaction to call in cops and prosecutors and charge little kids with terrorism when they were armed with nothing more than pieces of paper.
The notion that having "zero tolerance" of second- and third-graders engaging in harmless play is going to do anything to stop high-schoolers from shooting up their schools is sheer lunacy. And such policies do have a potential cost; it's hard to see how they can do anything other than sow moral confusion among young children.
How are parents supposed to teach their children right from wrong when they are subjected to school rules that are completely unhinged from common sense? Raleigh Walker, the father of the Louisiana eight-year-old, told the News-Star: "My son was upset all yesterday. I had to explain to him that owning guns and being in the Army is not bad." These eight-year-olds will be teenagers by 2006. Can we expect them to have any respect for adult authority when they have seen it exercised in such a capricious way?
The American Bar Association's ABA Journal last year published an article, "Zero Tolerance, Zero Sense," urging schools to drop zero-tolerance policies and recounting yet more horror stories. The ABA's points are well-taken, but the legal profession deserves a hefty share of the blame. As Kay Hymowitz pointed out last year in City Journal, zero-tolerance policies grew out of "a kind of bureaucratic mania" when school official feared that "the growing public clamor for safe schools could spawn a new generation of future lawsuits."
We salute the good sense of Soucheray, the St. Paul scribe, who concludes his column this way: "For all you readers who disapprove of my anachronistic thinking, would you please tell me which aspect of modern psychobabble education actually works? Is it the self-esteem part? The it-takes-a-village part? The zero-tolerance-including-snowballs part?"
The Dream Police
Zero-tolerance fever has spread north of the border, too. The Edmonton Journal reports that 17-year-old Keri Clarke of Keg River, Alberta, was suspended from high school for five days after he told his gym teacher about a dream he had had in which he punched the teacher. "Clarke said school officials told him the suspension was because of recent violent incidents in other schools across the continent," the Journal reports. "But he says their fears are unfounded. 'I wouldn't shoot nobody--I'm scared to go to jail.' "
This is not as obviously preposterous as punishing an eight-year-old for drawing a picture or throwing a snowball; after all, a 17-year-old could pose a real threat to an adult. But if Clarke genuinely endangered the teacher, a five-day suspension seems shockingly lenient. If he did not, as seems to have been the case, it seems unduly harsh.