Kids' suspensions renew debate over zero tolerance

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 18, 2013 at 5:01 pm •  Published: February 18, 2013
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Waiting in line for the bus, a Pennsylvania kindergartener tells her pals she's going to shoot them with a Hello Kitty toy that makes soap bubbles. In Maryland, a 6-year-old boy pretends his fingers are a gun during a playground game of cops and robbers. In Massachusetts, a 5-year-old boy attending an after-school program makes a gun out of Legos and points it at other students while "simulating the sound of gunfire," as one school official put it.

Kids with active imaginations? Or potential threats to school safety?

Some school officials are taking the latter view, suspending or threatening to suspend small children over behavior their parents consider perfectly normal and age-appropriate — even now, with schools in a state of heightened sensitivity following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December.

The extent to which the Newtown, Conn., shooting might influence educators' disciplinary decisions is unclear. But parents contend administrators are projecting adult fears onto children who know little about the massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators, and who certainly pose no threat to anyone.

"It's horrible what they're doing to these kids," said Kelly Guarna, whose 5-year-old daughter, Madison, was suspended by Mount Carmel Area School District in eastern Pennsylvania last month for making a "terroristic threat" with the bubble gun. "They're treating them as mini-adults, making them grow up too fast, and robbing them of their imaginations."

Mary Czajkowski, superintendent of Barnstable Public Schools in Hyannis, Mass., acknowledged that Sandy Hook has teachers and parents on edge. But she defended Hyannis West Elementary School's warning to a 5-year-old boy who chased his classmates with a gun he'd made from plastic building blocks, saying the student didn't listen to the teacher when she told him repeatedly to stop.

The school told his mother if it happened again, he'd face a two-week suspension.

"Given the heightened awareness and sensitivity, we must do all that we can to ensure that all students and adults both remain safe and feel safe in schools," Czajkowski said in a statement. "To dismiss or overlook an incident that results in any member of our school community feeling unsafe or threatened would be irresponsible and negligent."

The boy's mother, Sheila Cruz-Cardosa, said school officials are responding irrationally in the wake of Sandy Hook. She said they should be concentrating on "high school kids or kids who are more of a threat, not an innocent 5-year-old who's playing with Legos."

Though Newtown introduces a wrinkle to the debate, the slew of recent high-profile suspensions over perceived threats or weapons infractions has renewed old questions about the wisdom of "zero tolerance" policies.

Conceived as a way to improve school security and maintain consistent discipline and order, zero tolerance was enshrined by a 1994 federal law that required states to mandate a minimum one-year expulsion of any student caught with a firearm on school property. Over the years, many states and school districts expanded zero tolerance to include offenses as varied as fighting, skipping school or arguing with a teacher.

Some experts say there's little evidence that zero tolerance — in which certain infractions compel automatic discipline, usually suspension or expulsion — makes schools safer, and contend the policies leads to increased rates of dropouts and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Supporters respond that zero tolerance is a useful and necessary tool for removing disruptive kids from the classroom, and say any problems stem from its misapplication.

The original 1994 federal law, and most state and local zero tolerance policies, give school administrators the flexibility to tailor punishments to fit the circumstances, noted school safety expert Kenneth Trump.

"Contrary to the myth of zero tolerance, most school board policies provide options and flexibility for administrators. What you see is poor decision-making and poor implementation of the policies, rather than the fact school administrators are handcuffed in terms of their discretion," he said.

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