Zero tolerance weapons policies are absurd, leave no room for explanation

Zero tolerance policies have been in place in our elementary and secondary schools for some two decades now despite a lack of evidence that they accomplish the stated goals of making schools safer or more stable for learning. What instead has happened is that minority students and those with disabilities are much more likely to face suspensions than whites, and dropping out of school and into crime is the frequent outcome.

The famous case of this for those of us in the gun community is that of the boy who chewed a Pop Tart into what he declared was the shape of a gun.  This has been told again and again as a tale of anti-gun activism run amok, a belief that it was the shape of the snack that mattered.  According to an attorney serving as a hearing examiner for the school system in Anne Arundel County, Maryland who reviewed the case, the boy had a history of disrupting class, and the Pop Tart incident was merely the latest example.  The NRA perhaps was unaware of this nuance, since they gave him a membership — presumably for his activism or symbolism or somewhat.

Another incident, looking similar on the surface, happened recently in Florida, this time over a butter knife.  A middle school honors student has been suspended in Pembroke Pines for bringing a set of utensils that included a table knife that she used to cut up a peach to share with a classmate.  The picture of the object in question shown in the news report doesn’t look like a prison shank, but the school apparently has a different view.  The girl received a suspension for six days as a result of the system’s weapons policy.

I’ve had some experience with this, too.  I was teaching a dual-enrollment class to high school seniors, and one of my students shared Ibuprofen with a friend who had a headache.  If she’d done the same thing six months later as an adult outside the in loco parentis role of the school system, no one would have had any standing to say a word.  She was suspended for a couple of days near the end of the college semester, days that I was doing final revisions with the class.

I get why schools have to have policies about weapons and substances.  What if my student’s classmate had some kind of allergy to pain medication?  What if, instead of a butter knife, a child brings a real weapon?  The problem with absolutes, though, is that they leave no room for discretion, explanation, or understanding.

This is not simply a problem with discipline.  Education generally is in trouble.  In a culture that is moving more and more into the virtual and electronic, respect for book learning seems at an all-time low.  And testing is undermining the whole concept of what schools are supposed to be.

Paranoia and doctrinaire tactics aren’t the answer.  Students need to learn to think for themselves, and what we’re doing as national and state policy lately doesn’t make that happen.  We’re also not encouraging competent citizens for a free society.  Since the future of our experiment in such a society depends on how we bring up our children, it’s time for a rational approach, one that teaches both responsibility and independence — and compassion.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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