Under the guise of protecting and controlling young people, school officials have adopted draconian zero tolerance policies, which punish all offenses severely, no matter how minor. In fact, under the present system of mandatory punishment, an elementary school student is punished in the same way that an adult high school senior is punished. And a student who actually intends to harm others is treated the same as one who breaks the rules accidentally. Students are labeled as “drug dealers” and “weapon wielders” due to purely accidental circumstances and are punished for actions that hardly qualify as transgressions of the rules, let alone dangerous crimes.

School systems began adopting these tough codes after Congress passed the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required a one-year expulsion for any child bringing a firearm or bomb to school. Zero tolerance rules in many states also cover fighting, drug or alcohol use and gang activity, as well as relatively minor offenses such as possessing over-the-counter medications and disrespect of authority.

In the wake of the Columbine school shootings, nervous legislators and school boards further tightened their zero tolerance policies, creating what some critics call a national intolerance for childish behavior. In some jurisdictions, carrying cough drops, wearing black lipstick or dying your hair blue are expellable offenses.

These one-strike-and-you’re-out policies have been heavily criticized by such professional organizations as the National Association of School Psychologists: “Research indicates that, as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices.”

Despite mounting criticism, zero tolerance policies have proliferated, creating a vortex that sucks in otherwise innocent children. The public school crime blotter is teeming with examples. For instance, Tawana Dawson, a 15-year-old African-American student at Pensacola High School in Florida, was expelled for the 1999-2000 school year for possession of a “weapon” in violation of the school’s zero tolerance policy. The weapon in question was a nail clipper with a 2-inch metal nail file.

In Columbus, Ohio, a second-grader was suspended for drawing a paper gun, cutting it out and pointing it at classmates. A 12-year-old Florida boy was handcuffed and jailed after he stomped in a puddle, splashing classmates.

Incidents like these have made zero tolerance policies the subject of great debate and even ridicule. What has become apparent, however, is the fact that zero tolerance policies fail to decrease the number of students bringing weapons to school, victims of violent crime and students trying alcohol, cigarettes and other illegal drugs.

Some zero tolerance cases have made their way into the courts, but the judiciary has done little to rectify what most people would consider to be miscarriages of justice. A common pattern that has emerged in many zero tolerance cases is the judiciary’s tendency to allow school bureaucracy to triumph over common sense and the Bill of Rights. One case in particular come to mind.

The first case involves a young kindergartner from Sayreville, New Jersey, who was suspended for engaging in a make-believe game of cops and robbers on the school playground (he used his finger as a pretend gun). While the school district claimed to have no official written policy mandating “zero tolerance” of violent behavior or threats, the actions by the Sayreville school officials were consistent with those of many other school districts that have adopted such blanket policies. A lawsuit seeking to have the suspension expunged from the boy’s school record made its way through the courts — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, in fact, only to be dismissed at every turn.

Students throughout the country in urban, suburban and rural schools are being subjected to similar searches in the so-called quest to make the schools safer and drug-free. Indeed, there has been a move in Congress in recent years to legitimize strip searches in schools by teachers and other school staff.

The impact of these draconian zero tolerance policies on our young people cannot be understated: it renders them woefully ignorant of the rights they intrinsically possess as American citizens. What’s more, they grow up believing that they have no true rights and government authorities have total power and can violate constitutional rights whenever they see fit. 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.

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