Sometime over the past week a first or second grader grabbed his “not usual backpack” on his way to school one day. This wrong backpack had a toy gun in it. Sometime during the school day it became the toy gun not in the backpack and he was ultimately sent home for violating the zero tolerance policy on weapons in the school. We replayed that scene across several local school districts about a half dozen times since the beginning of the school year. Apparently a lot of kids keep their toy guns in backpacks now.
Sometime over the past month a first or second grader grabbed his backpack on the way to school and when he got there he found his mother’s real gun in it. A while before that another first or second grader pulled from his backpack at school his grandfather’s hunting knife. Sometime between them yet another first or second grader discovered heroin in his backpack courtesy of his parents.
What do all these have in common? Besides that all of the children were suspended per their district’s zero tolerance policy on weapons and drugs, all of them were phoned into one or another of the local news outlets’ “on your side” reporters who “went to bat” for the youngsters. The claim was that they were unfairly disciplined either because of their age, what was found, or how what was found was put into the child’s backpack becoming the rallying cry for saving the children.
Another thing in common is that in these and similar incidents, the public was behind the reporters. The vast majority of people who cared enough to express an opinion expressed that the children should not have been punished. It wasn’t their fault that the gun – toy or real – ended up at school. It wasn’t their fault that a knife, several inches long and sharp enough to slice through an animal hide popped out at the elementary school cafeteria inducing inferiority complexes among the standard issue plastic tableware. It wasn’t the child’s fault that his backpack was the closest hiding place for drugs at home that didn’t get removed before the backpack left home.
They argue that zero tolerance certainly didn’t mean to include actions not within the students’ control and certainly not the actions of first or second graders. Yet when the knife slashes 20 other students, or the gun is discharged and becomes the weapon holding a classroom hostage, even zero tolerance is too tolerant.
It seems somebody needs to revisit the various school districts’ policies. At what age does accountability begin? Are students expected to pay for the actions of their parents? Is “zero tolerance” a policy or a catchphrase?
Most importantly on that visit, people have to make a decision. Does zero mean zero? And if it does, does it mean zero at all times. How careful is one willing to be when one is wishing in today’s society?
Now, that’s what we think. Really. How ‘bout you?