Zero tolerance equals zero thought

November 2, 2009 — by Jordan Waite

Six-year-old cub scout Zachary Christie sat down to eat his home-packed lunch at Downes Elementary School in Newark, Del., on a day he thought was an ordinary day in Oct. He took out his camping eating utensil—which contained a fork, spoon, can opener and small knife—and was immediately sent to the principal’s office for being in possession of a dangerous weapon. Christie’s initial punishment was a mandatory 45 days of reform school before returning to first grade. In no way does a 6-year-old deserve such a harsh punishment over a harmless camping tool.

Though the school board quickly overturned the initial decision and allowed the boy to return to school, poor Christie said that he felt like he didn’t fit in anymore at school because of the mob of reporters and photographers that constantly followed him. It is a disgrace that the school system even considered sending the boy to reform school, where he would have spent every day around actual delinquents. This case is just one of many have occurred in an era of “zero tolerance” against weapons, which has been enforced in many public schools since the Columbine shootings in 1999.

Many obviously innocent students have been suspended or expelled since then. A 17-year-old Eagle Scout from upstate New York in the running for Westpoint received a suspension in October for possession of a pocket knife in his car survival kit he kept in case of emergency. This student should have been commended for his responsible preparedness, but he was caught on the wrong side of an overly set-in-stone law. In another case, a 10-year-old student from Longmont, Colo., was suspended in 1998 when she was found with a small kitchen knife in her lunch box. Her mother put the knife in her lunch that morning so the girl could cut her apple; she clearly didn’t intend to use it in a dangerous way. In yet another case , a third-grader received suspension for having a knife her grandmother sent to school along with the birthday cake for her class to share.

What has happened with this policy is that school officials sometime don’t even consider the circumstances of individual cases. Any student in possession of what could be considered a weapon, no matter their age or record, is punished as if they had the intent of harming their classmates. Officials who enforce the “zero tolerance” policy are effectively treating every case the same and therefore not putting thought into the situations. If a boy has a butter knife in the back of his pick-up truck, does that mean he was going to stab another student with it?

Another issue that needs to be addressed in cases involving possession of weapons is the definition of a weapon. Knife is a very broad term. Clearly, a case involving a butter knife should not be handled in the same way as a combat knife, but under the “zero tolerance” policy, they are sometimes treated equally. Pens and scissors are both arguably more dangerous than a butter knife, so what’s next? Are school districts going to ban scissors?

It is certainly necessary for schools to be cautious about weapons on campus, but each accused student should have his or her individual circumstances considered. Every citizen of the United States who is accused of a crime has the right to a trial by jury. A fair hearing is the least students should expect. In fact, students deserve even more consideration than a grown adult, because events like being suspended and places like reform school have long-term and possibly irreversible effects on a child’s growing mind.

After many cases like Christie’s, where an innocent student was wrongly punished due to the “zero tolerance” policy, the government should have figured out that their thoughtless approach isn’t working. The “zero tolerance” policy needs to be altered so that school and district officials can treat each individual case differently and actually think about the circumstances surrounding each accusation.

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