What we are witnessing, thanks in large part to zero tolerance policies that were intended to make schools safer by discouraging the use of actual drugs and weapons by students, is the inhumane treatment of young people and the criminalization of childish behavior.

Ninth grader Andrew Mikel is merely the latest in a long line of victims whose educations have been senselessly derailed by school administrators lacking in both common sense and compassion. A freshman at Spotsylvania High School in Virginia, Andrew was expelled in December 2010 for shooting a handful of small pellets akin to plastic spit wads at fellow students in the school hallway during lunch period. Although the initial punishment was only for 10 days, the school board later extended it to the rest of the school year. School officials also referred the matter to local law enforcement, which initiated juvenile proceedings for criminal assault against young Andrew.

Andrew is not alone. Nine-year-old Patrick Timoney was sent to the principal’s office and threatened with suspension after school officials discovered that one of his LEGOs was holding a 2-inch toy gun. That particular LEGO, a policeman, was Patrick’s favorite because his father is a retired police officer. David Morales, an 8-year-old Rhode Island student, ran afoul of his school’s zero tolerance policies after he wore a hat to school decorated with an American flag and tiny plastic Army figures in honor of American troops. School officials declared the hat out of bounds because the toy soldiers were carrying miniature guns. A 7-year-old New Jersey boy, described by school officials as “a nice kid” and “a good student,” was reported to the police and charged with possessing an imitation firearm after he brought a toy Nerf-style gun to school. The gun shoots soft ping pong-type balls.

What these incidents, all the result of overzealous school officials and inflexible zero tolerance policies, make clear is that we have moved into a new paradigm in America where young people are increasingly viewed as suspects and treated as criminals by school officials and law enforcement alike.

Adopted in the wake of Congress’ passage of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required a one-year expulsion for any child bringing a firearm or bomb to school, school zero tolerance policies were initially intended to address and prevent serious problems involving weapons, violence and drug and alcohol use in the schools.

The American Bar Association has rightly condemned these zero tolerance policies as being “a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools confront.” Unfortunately, when challenged about the fact that under these draconian policies, a kid who shoots a spitball is punished the same as the kid who brings a gun to school, school officials often insist that their hands are tied. That rationale, however, falls apart on several counts.

First, such policies completely fail to take into account the student’s intentions, nor do they take into account the long-term damage inflicted on school children. For example, as a result of the criminal charges against him, Andrew Mikel, an honor student active in Junior ROTC and in his church who had hoped to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, can no longer be considered as an applicant.

Second, these one-strike-and-you’re-out policies have proven to be largely unsuccessful and been heavily criticized by such professional organizations as the National Association of School Psychologists.

Third, with the emergence of zero tolerance policies, school officials have forsaken the time-honored distinction between punishment and discipline. Namely, that schools exist to educate students about their rights and the law and discipline those who need it, while prisons exist to punish criminals who have been tried and found guilty of breaking the law.

Fourth, such policies criminalize childish, otherwise innocent behavior and in many cases create a permanent record that will haunt that child into adulthood. Moreover, by involving the police in incidents that should never leave the environs of the school, it turns the schools into little more than a police state.

Finally, these policies, and the school administrators who relentlessly enforce them, render young people woefully ignorant of the rights they intrinsically possess as American citizens.

There’s an old axiom that what children learn in school today will be the philosophy of government tomorrow. As surveillance cameras, metal detectors, police patrols, zero tolerance policies, lock downs, drug sniffing dogs and strip searches become the norm in elementary, middle and high schools across the nation, America is on a fast track to raising up an Orwellian generation — one populated by compliant citizens accustomed to living in a police state and who march in lockstep to the dictates of the government. In other words, the schools are teaching our young people how to be obedient subjects in a totalitarian society.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.