I’m a participant in an online forum put on by Common Good this week about the age of zero tolerance for aspirin pills, bans on games of “tag,” and broken-thermometer lockdowns. From their description:
We entrust our children to teachers and principals with the expectation that they will be both educated and protected from harm. When, inevitably, incidents happen — especially when those incidents are tragic and well-publicized — communities often press for stricter rules and procedures. School administrations have reacted to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School with extreme protectiveness; one school suspended a six-year-old for “pointing his finger like a gun and saying ‘pow,’” while another suspended two boys for playing cops and robbers.
Also featured: Lenore Skenazy, Frederick Hess, Megan Rosker, and Nancy McDermott. From my contribution:
When they “err on the side of safety” in absurd ways, schools reflect trends in the wider society. … Already, by ten years ago, British commentator Jenny Cunningham could write that “A significant body of research evidence now indicates that there has been a drastic decline in children’s outdoor activity and unsupervised play. For example, it has been calculated that the free play range of children — the radius around the home to which children can roam alone — has, for nine-year-olds in the UK, shrunk to a ninth of what it was in 1970. Perhaps most damaging is that a climate has been created in which all unsupervised play is regarded as high risk, and parents or teachers who allow it are seen as irresponsible.” Cunningham notes that families now tend to see the risks of being hit by traffic or (far less likely) abducted by strangers as ruling out outdoor play. “Yet, despite the increasing levels of worry, in reality children have never been safer.” Sound familiar?
I go on to mention CPSIA, the wildly overreaching 2008 law regulating children’s products in the name of safety, and the proliferation of requirements that innocuous everyday chemicals be accompanied by material-safety-sheet paperwork. My conclusion: “If these are the trends in the outside society, how likely is it that schools will be able to resist?” (cross-posted from Cato at Liberty)
Authorities have dropped charges against the Florida teen “who was expelled and charged with two felonies after conducting an unauthorized but harmless science experiment on the grounds of her school.” [Jesse Walker, earlier] And in the feel-good story of the day, former NASA astronaut Homer Hickam “awarded Kiera a scholarship to attend the United States Advanced Space Academy (ASA), a branch of the famous Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.” [Black Youth Project]
“No one was hurt. There’s no sign that [Kiera] Wilmot was up to something malevolent. The kid’s own principal [at Bartow High School] thinks this wasn’t anything more than an experiment, and he says she didn’t try to cover up what she had done. What punishment did you think she received? A stern talking-to? A day or two of after-school detention? Maybe she’ll have to help clean up the lab for a week? Nope. The budding chemist has been kicked out of school and charged with a couple of felonies.” [Jesse Walker]
More: “Scientists Back Kiera Wilmot by Tweeting About All the Stuff They’ve Blown Up” [Tim Elfrink, Miami New Times] Similarly: Ashutosh Jogalekar, Scientific American.
“It depends on your whole interpretation of what a weapon is,” said the superintendent of the Jamesburg, New Jersey district. “It’s not a weapon as a knife is a weapon. But a weapon is anything that has the potential to cause harm.” Better watch out for kids who bring knuckles and fists to school, especially if they try to smuggle them in in the form of innocent-looking hands. [Free-Range Kids]
Of course everyone has their own favorite insane zero tolerance story. This one, which involves a Swiss Army Knife, an excursion to private school and a series of figures assuring the protagonist “I would love to make this all go away, but my hands are tied,” is Lenore Skenazy’s.
We told you crackdowns by the School Food Police were on the way. [KHOU via Obscure Store, Free-Range Kids]
Because touching is tantamount to taking, or something of that sort. “The girl did not bring the prescription drug to her Jeffersonville, IN school, nor did she take it, but she admits that she touched it and in Greater Clark County Schools that is drug possession.” [WAVE3.com]
A lockdown and evaluation results, and now authorities are recommending that the student and his parents get counseling. The project in question was an empty half of a Gatorade bottle with some wires and other components, intended to work as a motion sensor; the school is a tech magnet school. [San Diego Union-Tribune, Greenfield, Alkon]
Annals of zero tolerance: in Newark, Delaware, 6-year-old Zachary Christie took “a camping utensil that can serve as a knife, fork and spoon to school. He was so excited about recently joining the Cub Scouts that he wanted to use it at lunch. School officials concluded that he had violated their zero-tolerance policy on weapons, and Zachary was suspended and now faces 45 days in the district’s reform school.” In other Delaware cases, a school district “expelled a seventh-grade girl who had used a utility knife to cut windows out of a paper house for a class project,” and “a third-grade girl was expelled for a year because her grandmother had sent a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it.” [New York Times]
The policies do have their defenders: “‘There is no parent who wants to get a phone call where they hear that their child no longer has two good seeing eyes because there was a scuffle and someone pulled out a knife,’ said George Evans, the president of the Christina district’s school board. …Charles P. Ewing, a professor of law and psychology at the University at Buffalo Law School who has written about school safety issues, said he favored a strict zero-tolerance approach.” Blog reactions (some via Memeorandum): Sullum/Reason “Hit and Run”, Q and O, BoingBoing, Kate Harding/Salon “Broadsheet”, Below the Beltway, Tom Freeland/North Mississippi Commenter, Lowering the Bar.
P.S. He’s on the Today Show (via Skenazy). Scott Greenfield wants to call it a knife. After worldwide press attention and a large show of local support, the school board reversed its policy and allowed Zachary back (h/t comments). And now: “A 17-year-old Eagle Scout in upstate New York has been barred from stepping foot on school grounds for 20 days — for keeping a 2-inch pocketknife locked in a survival kit in his car.” [Fox News]
Florida governor Charles Crist has signed SB 1540, a bill that “requires school boards to revisit their zero-tolerance policies” and is aimed at [Tallahassee Democrat:]
reducing the number of juveniles who are needlessly thrust into the system because of minor infractions — most commonly, petty disobedience.
Consider cases from several headlines: In March, a Lakeland boy was suspended from school for intentionally passing gas on a school bus. In Hernando County, an 11-year-old girl was suspended for bringing a plastic butter knife to school. A student in Brandon was suspended because a calculator he brought to school was equipped with a “knife-like object.”
Ken at Popehat has more discussion, and links to our zero-tolerance archive.