Zero Tolerance Without Common Sense Is Scary


The educators are going nuts again. Not here in Palm Beach County — at least not yet — but a new round of “zero tolerance” rules is coming up that clearly demonstrates that many school leaders should not be around children. This time, the target is guns.

Now, I do not believe that guns belong in a school. Students who bring them in, unless under really extraordinary circumstances, should be suspended. A student with a gun is a danger to everyone. Schools here in Palm Beach County are right in making access to buildings far more difficult for outsiders; however, some leaders in various places around the country have gone further.

A 5-year-old nibbled on a pastry, chomping it into the shape of a gun, and waved it around. He was suspended, and the responsible parties in the school immediately brought in counselors to deal with the trauma the other kindergarten students obviously faced because of the deadly pastry.

A little girl was suspended because she had a plastic gun that shot bubbles in the air. A couple of young boys got suspended because they cocked their fingers at each other while playing cops and robbers. None of the obviously dangerous suspects had gone beyond second grade, but the “responsible adults” treated them as if they were psycho killers.

Students with pictures of guns have also been suspended, or in some cases sent for counseling. One boy had a picture of his father in Afghanistan. His dad, a soldier, was holding a rifle. And the boy got into major trouble. Drawing a gun, even if just doodling, has been determined by school leaders to be a clear sign of psychological disorder.

There was even a case where a crazy young man (I believe it was a student, but the news story was not specific) brought a gun onto a school bus and threatened people. A student on the bus grabbed the distraught, angry person and disarmed him. The young hero was promptly suspended.

At a time when urban school systems such as New York City’s announce that only 20 percent of their high school graduates are ready for college (and that statistic does not bother to count the close to half the students who never do make it through), perhaps principals, school superintendents and counselors should focus on improving reading, writing and ’rithmetic. And New York is better than a lot of other systems. Detroit’s system recently confirmed that only 7 percent of its students graduated ready to handle college material.

What zero tolerance always winds up meaning is that no common sense at all may be used. I remember the zero tolerance on drugs policy of 30 years ago. I was teaching, and one of my female students, when told of the policy, demanded to know why she would be classified as a drug user for taking medication to help her through her periods. “Don’t the idiots at the board of education,” she asked, “understand there’s a difference between using black tar heroin and Midol?” Eventually, most school systems made some compromises, although I still recall the case of a young girl collapsing on a school bus because of asthma who had not brought an inhaler along. A boy on the bus who knew he had the same asthma formula used his inhaler and possibly saved her life. He was suspended.

The current trend mostly confirms what my students told me long ago: There are many adults in schools who do not belong working with children. Suspending a student for bringing a gun to school brings nods of approval. Suspending a kindergartner for a gun-shaped pastry makes school leaders look stupid.

As a lifelong educator (more than 35 years in New York City schools), I find it horribly painful watching the collapse of the American school system. Once it was called one of the world’s wonders, breaking down socioeconomic barriers and preparing children to be successful. Teachers were respected; no one argued with principals. But times have changed. People respect success, and far too many school systems seem to be run for the purpose of providing jobs for adults rather than educating students.

And when school leaders make decisions that seem to demonstrate they have no common sense, and then use the power of their systems to enforce obvious stupidity, they lose the respect of the public. And it is the public that decides whether to provide funding for the schools. Do you think the parents of the young children suspended over nonsense will ever respect school leaders again? Will the children? And would respect, even if demanded, be earned?