Monday, October 12, 2009

Zero-Tolerance = Zero-Sense

Beware Your Local Cub Scout Troop:

NEWARK, Del. — Finding character witnesses when you are 6 years old is not easy. But there was Zachary Christie last week at a school disciplinary committee hearing with his karate instructor and his mother’s fiancé by his side to vouch for him.

Zachary’s offense? Taking a camping utensil that can serve as a knife, fork and spoon to school. He was so excited about recently joining the Cub Scouts that he wanted to use it at lunch. School officials concluded that he had violated their zero-tolerance policy on weapons, and Zachary was suspended and now faces 45 days in the district’s reform school.
That'll learn him. Delaware has the death penalty too, y'know. I'm just sayin'.

Spurred in part by the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, many school districts around the country adopted zero-tolerance policies on the possession of weapons on school grounds. More recently, there has been growing debate over whether the policies have gone too far.

But, based on the code of conduct for the Christina School District, where Zachary is a first grader, school officials had no choice. They had to suspend him because, “regardless of possessor’s intent,” knives are banned.

But the question on the minds of residents here is: Why do school officials not have more discretion in such cases? “Zachary wears a suit and tie some days to school by his own choice because he takes school so seriously,” said Debbie Christie, Zachary’s mother, who started a Web site,, in hopes of recruiting supporters to pressure the local school board at its next open meeting on Tuesday. “He is not some sort of threat to his classmates.”
No, but the suit he wears is probably a threat to the administration since I'm sure it was bought sometime this century.

Seriously, that is THE question: why no room for discretion in the application of these otherwise draconian policies? Because of the usual suspects such as fear mongering, political capital, and paranoid school bureaucrats.

Some school administrators argue that it is difficult to distinguish innocent pranks and mistakes from more serious threats, and that the policies must be strict to protect students.

“There is no parent who wants to get a phone call where they hear that their child no longer has two good seeing eyes because there was a scuffle and someone pulled out a knife,” said George Evans, the president of the Christina district’s school board. He defended the decision, but added that the board might adjust the rules when it comes to younger children like Zachary.
Of course, the literature has shown for years children that young are incapable of possessing the requisite mens rea to commit a crime. The decision and the policy (particularly as it applies to pre-pubescent, elementary school children) is ludicrous by that measure.

But don't let a few facts get in the way of good moral panic.
[...] A third-grade girl was expelled for a year because her grandmother had sent a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it. The teacher called the principal — but not before using the knife to cut and serve the cake.

Charles P. Ewing, a professor of law and psychology at the University at Buffalo Law School who has written about school safety issues, said he favored a strict zero-tolerance approach.

“There are still serious threats every day in schools,” Dr. Ewing said, adding that giving school officials discretion holds the potential for discrimination and requires the kind of threat assessments that only law enforcement is equipped to make.
Even though there is no evidence to suggest that zero-tolerance policies stopped discriminatory punishments against minority and poor kids, and most schoolyard scuffles (or birthday cakes sent to the school) don't require "threat assessments from law enforcement" in order to be dealt with. Worse, once these things are hammered onto a child's record, it follows them for life.

“Something has to change,” said Dodi Herbert, whose 13-year old son, Kyle, was suspended in May and ordered to attend the Christina district’s reform school for 45 days after another student dropped a pocket knife in his lap. School officials declined to comment on the case for reasons of privacy.

Ms. Herbert, who said her son was a straight-A student, has since been home-schooling him instead of sending him to the reform school.

The Christina school district attracted similar controversy in 2007 when it expelled a seventh-grade girl who had used a utility knife to cut windows out of a paper house for a class project.
Rock, Paper...Expulsion!

UPDATE: After the uproar of this national story, the school board backed down and agreed to both rewrite its policies and not suspend the Cub Scout. Sense prevails, however fleeting it might be.


Jay Livingston said...

"that young are incapable of possessing the requisite mens rea to commit a crime." The lack of mens rea doesn't mean the are incapable of the act (stabbing out eyes). But I would ask the principal: in all the years before this policy, how many eye knifings there were in his school or any school he knows of.

I used this article in class yesterday. Students had a lot to say about it.

Ryan said...

This is something which seems to becoming more and more common in the US.
Another case of this has recently surfaced in New York where a young high school age soldier has been suspended for 20 days for having a 1.5 inch pocket knife locked in the trunk of his car as part of a survival kit.
This falls in with what you were talking about in class, about the criminalization of childhood. At some point, people need to wake up and realize that we are legislating our children into being mindless robots with senseless policies like Zero tolerance.