Zero-tolerance policies

Two cases of box-cutters at school have been in the news this week.

In Blaine, Tony Richard, 17, was suspended for 10 days and could be expelled after a box cutter was found in his car. Richard says it’s there because he uses it at his after-school job at Cub Foods.

The school, like many others, has a zero-tolerance policy on “weapons.”

What was the school worried about? Probably what the officials over in Sheboygan, Wisconsin were. A 16-year-old student faces charges after his mother called the school to say he planned to “handle the situation” of another kid who chased him with a baseball bat on Monday. He was picked up on Tuesday with a box cutter.

A week or so ago, a kid in Naperville, Illinois was suspended under a zero-tolerance policy. He had a Swiss Army Knife. He was to be expelled until officials considered the fact he’s a special needs student.

The American Bar Association has looked at the zero-tolerance movement and found it lacking.

The ABA Journal story noted how unfair zero tolerance policies have become. One private attorney in Virginia observed that children are able to understand that there is a difference between being treated equally and being treated fairly. She said, “Kids are not going to respect teachers and administrators who cannot appreciate the difference between a plastic knife and a switch-blade.”

The lawyers association said in a 2001 report that “most current policies eliminate the common sense that comes with discretion and, at great cost to society and to children and families, do little to improve school safety.”

Do you favor zero-tolerance policies?

  • brian

    No.

    I can’t think of a situation where a zero-tollerance policy would be any better than a something-greater-than-zero tollerance policy. I don’t see how adding “zero tollerance” to “you can’t bring weapons to school” makes anyone any more or less likely to do that.

    It is the same with mandatory minimum sentences. We have to leave room for discretion.

  • MR

    I think that we’ve gotten away from the idea that when someone “wrongs” society, they should “pay their debt” somehow, and moved more toward a pure punishment mentality. I believe that’s where the “zero tolerance” and “mandatory minimum” movements have come from. There’s not much of an attempt to make the punishment fit the crime.

    Where is the harm to society of the person with the box cutter in his car because of his job? What’s the lesson that the school is trying to teach?

    The lesson being learned is that certain administrators are more interested in following the letter of the law than actually trying to prevent school violence.

  • CaliGuy

    I wonder how you feel about the lack of a zero-tolerance policy regarding weapons on the morning of September 11, 2001?

  • MR
  • Bob Collins

    A policy against a particular weapon, CaliGuy, and a zero tolerance policy against a particular weapon are not the same thing.

    Had a zero-tolerance policy been in effect on 9/11, the attacks still would have occurred since the metal detectors were calibrated only to detect the metal content of a weapon down to a .22 handgun.

  • Elizabeth T.

    No.

    With an absolute rule, one can only be absolutely certain that it will be broken. Which makes it no different from any other rule.

    One of the best pieces of advice I received regarding rearing children was to “be very, very, very careful about issuing ultimatums”. Absolute rules can back you into a corner with your kids, which may be difficult to escape without losing your child’s respect, i.e., “never say never”.

    Ought there to be very strict rules? Yes. Absolute ones? No.

    Consider the rules we give: Don’t hit people. Good rule? Yes. Absolute? No. I don’t mind if my child defends himself when attacked. Don’t steal. Again a good rule. Again, I can still think of a few examples where I would be understanding about it. There are and will always be exceptions to any rule.

    Absolutes put us in a position to either a) look like idiots in the eyes of our children when the rule really can’t be applied to all situations or b) fail to teach them how to make decisions.

    The attraction of absolute rules is sloth. If we don’t need to think about the rules, then we don’t need to worry about making our own decisions about interpreting those rules.

    It easy to say “no weapons in school”. But, what is a “weapon”? Anything, with a bit of imagination, can be used as a “weapon”. It sounds patently obvious, right? 9-mm gun, switchblades, and brass knuckles are all weapons and all equally prohibited. But what about that box-cutter? How about the hammer in the tool box? A plastic picnic knife? A pair of seamstress scissors? The argument about function following form ought to enter here. Using the example you provided, apparently a baseball bat was being used as a weapon. Shall we cancel the baseball team? When should a hockey stick be counted as a weapon?

    We set our own children up for failure, when presenting them with a situation where they simply cannot win. And, if they know they can’t obey all the time, why bother trying to comply at all?

  • JSmith

    CaliGuy, the next time someone (even you) forgets a swiss army knife in their pocket when they go through a metal detector they should be banned from flying forever.

    See, that’s the equivalent to a Zero Tolerance policy for the situation you’re talking about. That’s what they’re doing in the schools.

    Explain to me how that kind of policy makes sense at all?

  • CaliGuy

    CaliGuy, the next time someone (even you) forgets a swiss army knife in their pocket when they go through a metal detector they should be banned from flying forever.

    See, that’s the equivalent to a Zero Tolerance policy for the situation you’re talking about. That’s what they’re doing in the schools.

    Bad analogy, JSmith.

    To correct your analogy: The ban would not be an inability to fly on a plane ever again, but only from flying that particular carrier ever again.

    Schools, like the one in the example, simply expel the student from that particular school district — not the entire school system in general.

    Disclaimer: I work in education. I fully endorse zero-tolerance policies as it pertains to weapons. There is no reason why weapons should be in a school setting.

    Courts don’t allow an “ignorance defense”. Why should schools?

    In the end, ask yourself this: If, heaven forbid, someday someone carried out an act of violence with a permitted weapon at a school your child attended, what would your reaction be?

    Would you blame the school administrators for not doing everything that they possibly could to adequately protect your child?

    Or would you shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, that’s a price I’m willing to pay to allow Swiss Army knives (and the like) in my son/daughter’s school.”

    Your call.

  • Al

    To address CaliGuy:

    1. To correct your analogy: The ban would not be an inability to fly on a plane ever again, but only from flying that particular carrier ever again.

    This is still ridiculous and does nothing to solve the problem.

    2. Well, that’s a price I’m willing to pay to allow Swiss Army knives (and the like) IN my son/daughter’s school.”

    The knife was not IN school. There was no threat involved, no history of violence or confrontation.

    3. Your call.

    It isn’t really, except this point. I don’t live in Blaine. If I did, I would have already called my school board member and requested that the principal be terminated for lack of common sense. We pay a lot of money to hire intelligent superintendents. We should expect them to have the wisdom to be able to figure out that this is a non-issue. If I called my school board member and they agreed that the kid should be expelled I would seek their removal from the board.

    Do I want my children protected? Of course, but I also want them to learn in school. That includes learning reasonable and appropriate behavior for a given situation. Clearly that lesson is not being taught in Blaine.

  • Elizabeth T.

    the flaw with the Sept. 11 & plane analogy:

    If you are booted from a Delta plane for carrying a weapon, do you honestly think Northwest will step up to the bat and say “come fly with us”?

    School A expels Student. School B doesn’t want Student, because student was already expelled from another school. Is School B going to do anything to encourage the parents to bring the student there, so that the child can continue her education? Duh, no.

    The analogy with schools is a problem when one does not live in a big city. I went to a high school in W.Va. where there was one high school in the whole county. What happens when a young idiot gets in trouble? There’s no secondary carrier to pick her up.

    And, regardless of metal detectors, no one prior to September 11, 2001 would have considered a box-cutter a “weapon”. I would not have been thrown off the plane anyway.

  • CaliGuy

    I don’t live in Blaine. If I did, I would have already called my school board member and requested that the principal be terminated for lack of common sense. We pay a lot of money to hire intelligent superintendents. We should expect them to have the wisdom to be able to figure out that this is a non-issue. If I called my school board member and they agreed that the kid should be expelled I would seek their removal from the board.

    This is not meant to be personal, but the above idea reveals a misunderstanding of how our school systems work.

    Zero-tolerance policies are the *district* policies, i.e., developed by school board mandate and approved at their pleasure.

    To blame individual administrators (be it superintendents, principals, vice-principals, etc) for carrying out school board mandates is simply to “blame the messenger”.

    If you did call the school board, I would hope that they would have the backbone to clarify the above-stated point.

    Ultimately in the state of Minnesota, school boards are the ultimate authority for the local schools. School boards hire and fire superintendents, principals, et cetera. Responsibility for policies falls on their shoulders.

    Again: I fully support zero-tolerance policies. Zero-tolerance policies *are* common sense…if you want your students protected to the best of a school’s ability.

    Final thought:

    Do I want my children protected? Of course, but I also want them to learn in school. That includes learning reasonable and appropriate behavior for a given situation. Clearly that lesson is not being taught in Blaine.

    Are you placing the full responsibility for educating our youth on the schools? Really? At no point did you contend that the parents/guardians should sit down with students and discuss appropriate behavior and expectations in the school setting.

    Placing blame exclusively on schools ignornes the primary and fundamental responsibility that parents/guardians have to be parents/guardians.

  • Bob Collins

    Here are the school board policies. Maybe someone can help me find the one for weapons because it’s not jump out at me here. Thanks.

  • Bob Collins

    Aha! I found it. Here’s the policy:

    “Possession, use, and/or transmission of a weapon(s) or any object that can reasonably be considered a weapon(s): weapon means a knife; firearm or an item which looks like a firearm, whether loaded or unloaded, in working or nonworking condition; destructive explosives, any incendiary device or look alike and/or the threatened intent or intent to cause an explosion; or any other device or instrument which is utilized in such a manner so as to threaten, intimidate or produce bodily harm or the fear of such.”

    I’d argue that it’s not a knife.

  • CaliGuy

    …”or any other device or instrument which is utilized in such a manner so as to threaten, intimidate or produce bodily harm or the fear of such.”

    I’d argue that it’s not a knife.

    C’mon now. Again, and not to beat the events on 9/11 over the head, but I would think that it’s now pretty clearly established that box cutters would indeed fall well within the district’s policy.

    Also: Someone mentioned above that the student at Blaine did not have the cutter *in* the school. That argument is irrelevant, as the “school grounds” would include the physical school building along with any and all parking lots, fields, and other areas of the district-owned campus.

  • Bob Collins

    “C’mon, now” is a phrase I think that’s been uttered quite a bit when a literal translation is being applied and people are shrugging and say, “hey, it’s out of our hands.”

    The policy doesn’t say box-cutters and the final definition includes WHICH ARE USED . Technically, this weapon wasn’t used.

    I’m just sayin’…. literal translations with no room for definition or wavering cut both ways.

    You’re invoking context and while it might make some sense… context isn’t allowed in this.

    (and obviously I’m messing with you here)

  • CaliGuy

    “Possession, use, and/or transmission of a weapon(s) or any object that can reasonably be considered a weapon(s)…

    “Possession…of…any object that can reasonably be considered a weapon…”

    Looks like the Anoka-Hennepin School District had a good lawyer writing or advising. Kudos to them.

  • Al

    CaliGuy – I understand that the school board makes the policies. I also understand that this would not have gotten to the school board if the principal and/or the superintendent used their judgement in enforcing the rules. Leaders are charged every day with making reasonable decisions within a framework of rules. If a principal’s job was nothing more than enforcing the letter of a series of rules most anyone could do it provided they had memorized the rules. This is a job with more nuance than that.

    Furthermore, hopefully this case is a wake up call for the school board that their ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy is over the top and does not allow much room reasoable decision making.

    BTW, I never said that I expected the school to teach every thing. You said that. I do expect the school officials to set good examples in their decision making skills. Yes, were my kids of an age to talk to them about this I would. It would include:

    1. You know you can’t bring weapons, right?

    2. So what do think could be weapon?

    3. Do you think this kids did something so terrible that he should be kicked out of our school forever, or was this an honest mistake?

  • Alison

    If the school board really wanted a policy to reduce the threat of violence, they would require schools to develop a plan to make sure a responsible adult in the school connects with every student. Kids need to know that someone in the school cares that they are there and wants the best for them. I suspect that all too often there are a few kids in schools who noone cares for or connects with. When kids are connected to adults who can spot the warning signs of a variety of problems, from violence to alcohol & drug abuse, to depresion and suicial thoughts, all children will benefit. School staff should also be required to report kids they think are having these sorts of troubles to administration/guidance staff, whether they see warning signs in class, in the lunch room, after school, or wherever.

    The problem with school violence isn’t that you have kids looking at a box cutter sitting in car and saying hey, I think I’ll go cut someone. The problem begins long before that. Think back to Columbine, Red Lake, and Virginia Tech. Would a zero tolerance policy have helped?

  • brian

    CaliGuy, how does adding “Zero Tolerance” to a rule add anything to the rule? How does giving the principal the leeway to say “oh, this student probably didn’t mean to use this a weapon” make a school any less safe? The principal would still have the authority to suspend/expel the student if they thought it was warranted.

  • PC Medic

    My son was recently suspended for the remainder of the school year from his Virginia Beach High School (something we are appealing and if need be are prepared to file suit over).

    What happened, he wrote graffiti on the inside of the door of bathroom stall with a “Sharpie’ marker. What he wrote was simply ‘ASK’ in an artistic font. Not a threat, not an obscenity,…simply ASK. He was caught because it also appears on his school binder and when an administrator saw him in the hall with the binder took him to the principals office where he was asked if he was the one responsible for it also appearing in the restroom. Raised to be honest he with out hesitation admitted to the deed. Was it wrong to do…absolutely and he admitted to that, apologized and even offered to clean it off. However when he was brought to the principals office he was also instructed to empty his pockets and binder. Out of one of his pockets came a bandanna. The highly trained administrators of this school system chose to put their anti-gang training to work and quickly pointed out that carrying the banadanna could be considered as ‘gang’ related. Now we proceeded to explain that due to my sons hair length (middle of his back) and the fact he either will ride his bike or skateboard to school the bandanna is used to hold his hair out of his face. It is removed and put in his pocked before entering the building (as per school policy that no bandanna’s may be worn or displayed).

    They chose not to listen and instead suspended him under their ‘Zero-Tolerance Policy for ‘gang related activity’. Honor Roll student, active in his church and community and well liked by most everyone that meets him. Where is the logic ???

    In the mean time another child who lives down the street from us was involved in a fight at school and beat the other student to a pulp. He was suspended for 5 days!!! ???