June 29, 2001

June 29, 2001 | Commentary on Education

Zero Tolerance? Try Zero Wisdom

You know school "zero tolerance" policies have gone overboard when they start getting Marines in trouble.

At Elkhart Memorial High School in Indiana, two young Marine recruits were banned from attending their June graduation ceremony for not following the dress code, which included a collared shirt, tie and slacks. But they didn't don shorts and T-shirts, or even combat fatigues. They wore their dress blue uniforms, which are "about as dressy as you can get," one Marine recruiter said.            

Still, because their uniforms didn't fit the policy exactly, school officials turned them away. "We didn't mean any disrespect to the uniform," Elkhart's superintendent told a reporter. "But we too have a uniform for about an hour and a half."

That's just the latest example of how nutty "zero tolerance" policies have become. You've probably heard similar stories, such as the one about the 9-year-old Louisiana boy suspended for drawing a picture of a soldier holding a knife. Or two 6-year-olds in New Jersey sent home from school for playing "cops and robbers" on the playground. Or the 13-year-old girl in Ohio suspended for bringing Midol, an over-the-counter pain medication, to school.            

Then there was the 18-year-old National Merit Scholar from Florida who was suspended-and then arrested-because authorities found a kitchen knife in her car. She said the knife was probably there because it fell out of a box when her family moved a few days earlier. But, like the young Marines in Indiana, she also was banned from graduation for violating the school's weapons policy. And because of the arrest, she might lose her college scholarship.

It wasn't always like this. Many "zero-tolerance" policies were launched in response to the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. But the current wave can be traced back to Congress in 1994, when it passed a law that said any school receiving federal money must automatically expel any student who takes a gun to school.            

Like so many laws, it was full of good intentions. And to be fair, "zero-tolerance" policies are not without merit, when they're combined with a large dose of common sense. But that's the problem-we're not getting the good judgment necessary to make such policies work well.

In fact, it's fair to say that, thanks to "zero tolerance," we're getting "zero intelligence" from many school officials. Or more appropriately, zero wisdom. A student who brings a plastic ax to school as part of a fireman costume at Halloween is treated like a potential ax murderer (a true case from Pennsylvania, by the way). When it comes to "zero tolerance," officials are acting as mindlessly as a computer performing a spell check.            

This must stop. If courts applied a "zero tolerance" policy to the First Amendment, "In God We Trust" couldn't be printed on money because it would violate the separation of church and state. Controversial paintings or sculptures could be banned, because they're not literally the free "speech"  the Constitution protects.

Looking at it another way, you could yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater all you want because, hey, it's speech. The same goes for libel-public figures couldn't sue the tabloid press, no matter how baseless a particular article may be.

Figuring out where to draw the line in disciplinary matters may be tough in a post-Columbine age, but that doesn't absolve school officials from making the effort. If they think students playing "cops and robbers" should be treated just as if they'd held up a real bank, they're in the wrong line of work.

Edwin J. Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

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