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Readers — As we enter 2012, there is cause for hope, as this article shows. Legislators in Colorado, home to the Columbine massacre, are taking a new and rational look at their zero tolerance laws. These are laws that REQUIRED schools to act brainlessly and not distinguish between, say, a wooden replica of a rifle and a smoking AK47. Laws that told school administrators they’d be WRONG to treat a butter knife as a butter knife rather than as a deadly weapon. According to the website TimesCall.com:

A legislative committee moved forward with a proposal that seeks to give education officials more discretion over expulsions and police referrals, which lawmakers say became more common after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, where two students killed 13 people and then themselves.

Committee members said zero-tolerance policies adopted during the last decade have tied the hands of school administrators, who are forced to expel students or involve law enforcement for minor infractions.

How wonderful to untie the hands of school administrators and free them to reason rather than to blindly (over)react. If Colorado is where the Zero Tolerance Revolution began, let’s hope that this is where it begins its demise.

The proposed legislation would make expulsions mandatory only in cases of students bringing a firearm to school and would amend school discipline codes to distinguish minor infractions from violations that need police involvement. The proposal would also direct school boards to create discipline codes that limit suspensions and expulsions to cases where a student’s conduct threatens school safety.

Significantly, this new legislation is co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican — more proof that, rather than taking knee-jerk umbrage at something the other party suggested, people are starting to use their brains (and not, I guess, their knees). Let’s hear it for rationality, compassion and no longer overreacting to “threats” that don’t threaten our kids at all. — L.

If she brings a butter knife to school, she will no longer be considered armed and dangerous.

Hi Folks! A number of you sent me this today — news of the European Union’s new ban on kids under age 8 blowing up balloons unsupervised, for fear the children could swallow them and choke.

This is not to discount the suffering of any family that has experienced this unlikely tragedy. But if the chance that something terrible COULD happen is going to be (and apparently is) our new standard for what to outlaw, we will have to outlaw stairs (children could fall), cars (for obvious reasons), pets (kids could trip), chairs (kids can fall off, tip backwards, choke on a bite of the seat cushion, impale themselves on the legs — you name it). The fact is, there is a small amount of danger present in everything on earth, and if that means that now we insist kids can not be around any of it unless supervised, we are really just saying we don’t want kids to be unsupervised, ever.

Here in America, the number of children who choke to death on balloons was 4 in 1998, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Considering there are about 32,000,000 children age 8 and under, we are talking about 1 death in 8 million. That’s an outcome that is, thankfully, very rare. Rarer still must be the children somehow injured by those whistle-type things you blow into and they unfurl and then they curl right back up. We’re talking standard issue birthday party favors, but those are being banned by the EU, too — and not just for kids under 8. Here’s what it says in The Telegraph:

Apparently harmless toys that children have enjoyed for decades are now regarded by EU regulators as posing an unacceptable safety risk.

Whistle blowers that scroll out into a long coloured paper tongue when sounded – a party favourite at family Christmas meals – are now classed as unsafe for all children under 14.

FOURTEEN? A year or two younger than the age my grandfather sailed to America from Russia on his OWN?  But suddenly this generation of kids can’t even handle a BIRTHDAY PARTY FAVOR at PUBERTY?

We are really treating our children as if they are the dumbest, feeblest  generation ever to walk — crawl! — the earth. The question to ask is: What is lost when we do this, when we can’t just let our third graders blow up and play with a balloon on their own?

Answer: A whole lot. First of all, of course, there is the uninhibited fun of just goofing around with friends. It’s not the same with parents hovering. (Don’t you remember how different it felt when your mom came along on a field trip versus when she didn’t? I sure do.) Also endangered is that little hit of accomplishment: “I did it myself!” The sharing and compromising and creativity and problem-solving that all are part and parcel of kids coming up with a balloon game to play without parental “help” — those are gone, too.

But gone most of all is a sense of perspective. A little understanding that while we all want our children to be safe, there is no such thing as absolute safety and to try to conjure it up through legislation ends up bringing us laws like…well, like no party whistles for high school sophomores.

Somehow I just don’t feel our kids are a whole lot better off. — L.

Thank God these children are supervised! Look at the danger surrounding them!

Hi Readers —  Last summer I spent a day with Mary Duval, her son Ricky, and Ricky’s wife. Mary and Ricky were in town to appear on a John Stossel show about the country’s sex offender laws, mostly because Ricky had ended up on the sex offender registry at age 16. He’d met a girl at a club, had sex with her twice, and only later learned she’d been 13, not the 15 or so she’d told him she was. Anyway, the whole, harrowing story is here and I’ve written about it before. What brought Mary to Stossel’s attention is that she fought the law that turned her son into a “sex offender,” and eventually got it changed in her state. She even got her son’s conviction expunged. This kind of victory is rare. Other young men like Ricky are on the registry for life.

Injustice made Mary into the kind of activist they make movies about…when the activism doesn’t involve sex offenders. Just about the same time her son was convicted, she went blind from Marfan Syndrome. A divorcee, she moved the family to a trailer in the middle of Oklahoma, since Ricky couldn’t live many places in town. Sex offenders have to locate a certain distance from schools, churches, day care centers – any place children may congregate. (And yet bank robbers don’t have to live a certain distance from banks.  And murderers can live anywhere. Go figure.)

Anyway, that day Mary was in New York, we painted the town red. We went to Central Park, and Fifth Avenue and Chinatown. What’s really fun if you’re blind? We sailed into a fancy perfume store and soaked up all the scents, even as the snooty salesgirl glared at us. We went to Barney’s, the ultimate in chic, where a sloppy-looking handbag cost $3000, and Ricky and his wife took pictures of the crazy New York prices. It was a great day. And as we walked along, Mary’s cell phone kept ringing. “Who’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a mom who’s been suicidal for about a year. Her son was 15, he got a sext from his girlfriend, who’s 17, but the prosecutor got him for kiddie porn.” Or, “Oh, that’s a mom whose son is on the sex offender registry – the cops found something on his computer. And now when anyone rings the bell at their house he has to answer the door, ‘I am a convicted sex offender.’ She’s having a hard time.” Another mom called, also upset. She had to take all the photos of relatives under the age 18 down from her walls, because her son was on the registry and that’s what his parole officer demanded.

The moms called Mary for strength. She listened, offered some bracing words, maybe snorted with gallows humor and told them to call her again anytime. “That mom who was suicidal? She’s finally coming out of it,” said Mary, sounding damn pleased. “She’s getting ready to fight.”

I wish I could say the same for Mary, but in the less than a year since I saw her, she was diagnosed with cancer and went through chemo. She managed to make it to a couple of legislative hearings to explain that while we all want our children to be safe from predators, some of the sex offender laws aren’t making that happen. In fact, they’re making our sons less safe. And then, very recently, she broke her back.

Right now, the word I’m hearing is that Mary is in a coma.  The prognosis is grim and her message machine is full.

Of course it is. The moms keep calling her. They need her. We all do.

Hoping for a miracle. – L.

Hi Readers — A long, sad and infuriating story. Here goes:

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I noticed you sometimes talk about Child Protective Services (CPS) or other official intervention and Free-Range children. I have to admit, I did always wonder if I’d get in trouble for being the only mom who doesn’t wait at the bus stop each morning or overbook my kids with extracurriculars, but intellectually I knew I wasn’t breaking any laws or even engaging in any overly questionable parenting. However, it seems the school disagreed, and they compiled a pretty extensive (if weak) case against me with CPS and CPS tried to put my kids in foster care. They’re with my parents now, and our lives have been pretty much destroyed indefinitely.

Long story short: in mid-February, my 8-year-old daughter and I got some ice cream and watched Romeo + Juliet on a Saturday night. Six days later a group of kids cornered her at recess and she got upset and said she wouldn’t be in school Monday because she was going to kill herself. A serious thing, yes, but probably influenced by watching the movie.

The school asked us to get counseling, and I said we were applying for Child Health Plus, which takes up to seven weeks to become active. After three weeks, the school reported us to CPS for “failing” to get counseling, despite the fact I told them four times, in writing, that we did not have money to pay for it out of pocket and were trying to get insurance. (I’m a single mom.) My daughter and her brother (10) were questioned at length, and she said that a single time when she’d had a tantrum, I used a pillow to block her punches. In court documents, this was worded as “on a daily basis, the mother pinches the child’s nose shut while holding her mouth closed and putting a pillow over her face, placing her in imminent risk of death.” This is patently false, but the words were deliberately chosen, because otherwise they could not remove the kids.

CPS workers later told me that the pillow allegation was a pretense to allow them to remove my kids from the home, because the counseling thing had raised a red flag. (I have a recording of the CPS worker saying he did not report the pinching/suffocating allegation, and was surprised to see it in the motion.) I was given a list of other “red flags,” things that are frightening in their averageness:

-That since I work from home, I spend “all night typing on the computer while my kids run wild.”

-That my children walk 300 feet to a bus stop unattended, although I watch from the window. They are 8 and 10 and go together.

-That when my daughter made the suicide threat, close to the end of the school day, I was unavailable by phone because I was on a business call. Apparently, this is a crime worthy of terminating parental rights, because there is an adoption date of 12/2011 on my first court paper. Seems mothers must never be more than five feet from a (non busy) phone at all times.

-That my children “never do their homework,” when in actuality, I don’t do it for them and cut it off at bedtime. If they don’t do it, they miss recess. This happens about twice a month, tops.

-That they “never have school supplies,” because my son lost a notebook once and it stayed lost for a week.

-That I said I could not commit to picking up their homework at the school each day because it would interfere with my work and asked the teachers to email me if there was a problem.

-That I communicate via email, and some of the emails have a timestamp after 2am. This became the “typing all night” thing.

None of the relations I had with the school prior to CPS involvement were hostile or even contentious. I had no reason to believe that such drastic measures would be taken. Never in a million years would I have believed that missing a phone call, allowing kids to walk to the bus stop, letting them go to school with incomplete homework or sending late emails would be grounds to place a child in foster care, but that’s exactly what happened to us.

Since this happened, most people who know us well have reacted with shock and sympathy, but an alarming number have said: “Why didn’t you take them to the bus? ” “Why didn’t you do their homework if they didn’t do it?” “Why are you up late?”

I know all this is insane. No one should be forced to raise their kids in consideration of appearances if the children are happy and healthy. I just hope you don’t get too many emails like mine. — Worried on Long Island

Dear Worried: I am sickened an appalled by the way this has unfolded. What everyone reading this site should know, however, is that I posted this story NOT because it is common — it’s not. I posted it because it shows what can happen if we allow “helicoptering” to become the only acceptable way to parent. If not walking the kids to the bus stop becomes a form of abuse, we will be living in a very different country. So for those of us here, let us keep reminding our friends and associates that our kids are NOT in constant danger, that after a certain age they do NOT need constant hands-on supervision, and that there is a range of parenting styles that work for a range of kids. 

Also, if there are any reporters reading this who would like to follow up on this story, or explore the idea that sometimes CPS conflates confident parenting with criminality, please contact me and I can steer you to the letter writer. — L.

Hey Readers! Once in a while, common sense actually wins a biggie. That’s what’s  happening right now in Texas, where the governor seems set to sign a “Romeo & Juliet” bill that would prevent teens and young adults who have consensual sex from ending up as official “Sex Offenders,” required to register for life.

Yes, that’s really how the law stood — until now. According to the Star-Telegram:

Under current law, according to a legislative analysis of the bill, there is no such thing as consensual sex with a minor in Texas. Currently, a man who is 18, 19 or 20 in a consensual sexual relationship with a girl under 17 could be convicted of sexual assault of a minor and would be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

That is beyond crazy. That is LIFE ruining — and for what? Who does it help? No one. Who does it hurt? The very people it is supposed to protect: young people.

Thank god the legislature had the gumption to re-introduce the Romeo & Juliet bill, which the Governor, Rick Perry, vetoed in 2009. Let’s give a big hand to its sponsors: Texas State Rep. Todd Smith and Texas Sen. Royce West (one Democrat and one Republican — this is NOT a partisan issue)!

While we are at it, let’s also hear it for Mary Duval, a dogged (and, by the way, blind) activist who has been working for YEARS trying to make our country’s sex offender laws do what they were intended to do — keep creeps away from kids — rather than rounding up anyone who ever had sex at a young age. She’s founder of the extremely moving site, Ricky’s Life,. It was through Mary that I first about how the sex offender laws were catching more than just “the bad guys.” Like a net that catches dolphins along with tuna, they were catching some people who did nothing more than have sex with someone slightly younger, along with hapless humans who peed in public or even streaked.

When the law prosecutes threats and non-threats with equal zeal, something is very wrong. Today, a little bit got righted. — L

Hi Readers — Am I reading this proposed law correctly? It’s from Hawaii. Could it actually seek to outlaw… selling squirt guns to minors?

I’m reading it wrong, right?  Or it’s early and I’m still asleep? Or someone stole our planet and replaced it with the wacky one made out of Silly Putty? Help! — L.

Not the kind of gun Hawaii is considering outlawing.

Hi Readers! While we’re on the topic of crib recalls, as well as when parenting intervention is called for and all that, I just had to link to this phenomenal essay from The Economist: “Not All Tragedies are Preventable.” As it says in the opening paragraph:

LEGISLATION that bears the name of a victim of a particular crime or accident is often bad legislation. That’s because lawmakers, feeling the pressure of an emotionally-charged constituency, tend to overreact, instituting a broad and aggressive policy in response to a specific, perhaps rare problem. And so it is with the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2008, which directs the secretary of transportation to take measures to protect children in and around parked vehicles. The act is named after a two-year old who was tragically run over by his father as he backed into his driveway in 2002. Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal reported on the latest outcome of this legislation: starting in September 2012 new cars will be required to expand their field of view in an effort to reduce blind spots on the sides and rear of vehicles. This will effectively require carmakers to install rear-mounted video cameras.

Later on, the article talks about whether it really makes sense to mandate a “safety” measure that is expensive and saves few lives, considering the trade-off costs:

If the cost of the regulation is borne by carmakers it will… reallocate resources at the government’s behest that might otherwise be used to increase driver safety, improve fuel efficiency, or pay for employees’ health benefits….. More importantly, if we’re thinking about the children, this $2-billion-a-year tax equivalent would do more good if it were directed at improving the nutrition of youngsters from poor families, paying for research into and treatment of common childhood diseases or expanding programmes like SCHIP.

It’s always easier to think of a single tragedy —  a “poster child” — than it is to wrap our minds around a bigger problem like autism, or failing schools, or a lack of public park space. And it also risks sounding heartless, since we can SEE the poster child and we can’t see “a lack of arts education.” But I agree with this Economist writer: Often enough, legislation that focuses on a rare and horrifying tragedy does not improve the world that much, and may take our attention and money away from bigger problems that just don’t stab us through the heart. — Lenore