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zero tolerance


Note that the superintendent is quoted as saying, “School law MANDATES we investigate whenever anyone in the school feels threatened or uncomfortable with the actions of another student.”

Making someone “uncomfortable” is all it takes to warrant an investigation? So if I say, “I like hamburgers” to a student who’s vegan…should I get ready for a 5-hour evaluation? After all, the other kid may feel uncomfortable about my carnivorous ways. Call the cops! Or the thought police! Or Nurse Ratched!

Superintendent: “We never know what’s percolating in the mind of children, okay? And when they demonstrate behaviors that raise red flags, we must do our duty.”

I feel the same way about superintendents who raise red flags by getting to a position of authority without demonstrating any common sense. – L.

P.S. The dad has set up an email account if you wish to get in touch: njpencil@gmail.com

Readers — Here to help you start your day with a little scream (beats coffee!) comes this story from KMOV in St. Louis, MO.  Apparently, last week, the mom of a special needs son got a “frantic” call from his teacher. She rushed to the school, got buzzed in and ran to his classroom, committing a cardinal sin: She didn’t sign in.

Informed of her transgression by a school administrator, the mom asked to have the sign-in book brought to her but was informed: Too late, the police were already on their way.

And so they were. She was taken to the police station. The charge? Trespassing. Meantime, the school went on lockdown for 12 minutes — as if the administrators didn’t well KNOW that this was a mom and not a shooter. Why are we so addicted to overreacting — or, worse, pretending something terrible and threatening has happened when it obviously has not? – L 

Readers — Unplug your gall-o-meters before you read  this story or they might explode: When a fire alarm went off in a St. Paul Minnesota High School, everyone was evacuated, including a 14-year-old who’d been swimming and was not given time to grab her clothes. I can totally understand hustling her out of the building, given the fear of a real fire. What blows my mind is this:

But due to school policy, she wasn’t allowed to sit in a faculty-member’s car.

“We kind of huddled up and made a circle around me, and the other kids who were cold,” Hagen-Tietz said.

Eventually, a teacher did get permission to allow Hagen-Tietz and her classmate to sit inside her car.

But by that time Hagen-Tietz had already stood barefoot and wet for 10 minutes in some of the coldest conditions of the year.

Got that?

The school is on record as saying it will now “review these procedures, including cold weather modifications.” In other words, they think they need a new PLAN.


Apparently they really NEED someone to write out, “Should evacuation occur during swimming and a student is taken outside in not less than a bathing suit but not more than a towel and it is below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6 Celsius), the no-children-in-teachers’-cars shall be suspended for 10 minutes, to be periodically reviewed by a committee of at least two fully certified, background-checked school administrators….”

Now of course, society has had long suffered mindless bureaucrats. But combine rigid bureaucracy with a hysteria about almost all contact between kids and adults and you get a society that is as cruel as it is stupid. The bizarre and far-fetched fear of a kid simply sitting in an adult’s car becomes more terrifying than the reality of a kid  standing outside, dripping wet and barefoot, in the winter, in Minnesota.

Ah, the things we do to keep children safe. – L.


Hi Readers — I like this article in the current Economist, “School Discipline: The Perils of Peanut Tossing,” because it nails something that has gone sort of unnoticed. Not just that when schools suspend kids willy-nilly for minor infractions they often end up harming the kid far more than helping the school. No, it also points out that Zero Tolerance laws are as obtuse, cruel and pointless as our Mandatory Minimums. Both these travesties REFUSE to take into account any of the actual circumstances, and vastly overreact to small, even non-existent “dangers.” Once again, the Free-Range mantra, “Our kids are  not in constant danger!” is what’s needed. When a Pop Tart “gun” and normal horseplay are elevated to crimes, we are hallucinating danger and responding with overkill.

When pupils get in trouble for silly reasons, the results can be serious

EARLIER this autumn a school in Canon City, Colorado suspended Hunter Yelton for violating its sexual-harassment policy. His crime? Kissing a girl on the hand. Hunter is six years old. Other dangerous acts that have warranted suspension in schools across the land include chomping a Pop-Tart (an American breakfast pastry) into the shape of a gun, firing an imaginary bow-and-arrow and talking about shooting a Hello Kitty soap-bubble gun. In Mississippi, infractions serious enough to bring in the police include wearing the wrong shoes (a five-year-old boy’s school dress code mandated black shoes; his mother used a marker to blacken his red-and-white shoes, but apparently bits of red and white could still be seen) and wearing the wrong socks. Five pupils tossing peanuts at each other in the back of a school bus ended up charged with felony assault when one of the nuts hit the driver.

Many of these students attend schools with zero-tolerance policies, which have been around for years; some date their inception to the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which required schools receiving federal funds to expel pupils who brought in firearms. According to John Whitehead, founding lawyer of the Rutherford Institute, a law firm focused on civil liberties, they really began proliferating after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Like the mandatory-minimum sentences established by Congress at the height of the drug war, zero-tolerance policies in schools were intended to make sure that all bad behaviour drew a uniform response. Instead, also like mandatory minimums, the responses they mandate are often wildly disproportionate to the “offences” committed; they do little, if anything, to improve discipline; and they can cause lasting harm to pupils.

Read more here.

Howdy, kids!

Howdy, kids!

Readers — One of the things I try to explain in my talks, book and blog is that some present-day parenting practices (and laws) that just seem “wise” now will be considered downright detrimental in the future, or are considered weird NOW in other places. For instance:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I can’t thank you enough! When I thought everyone around me is so fearfully overprotecting their kids, I was so relieved to find your homepage. My story in a nutshell:

We moved 4 years ago from Switzerland to Canada. Both my kids, now 4 and 5, were born in Switzerland but raised here in a very small community in Hamilton, ON Canada. But raised by me – an average Swiss mum who had no idea about helicopter parenting.

At age 3, I allowed my older son to go around the corner with his push-bike. No, he was not allowed to cross the street yet. But yes, I did not see him any more… for at least 1 or 2 minutes until I caught up (which is very normal in Switzerland… where also playgrounds are built that way, that parents not always see their kids). But various times people brought him back to me… and I just did not understand what’s going on.

My biggest struggle I have though, is with their school. The kids can not touch each other! I get feedback from the teacher that the “students” are not allowed to hug their friends. They could fall while hugging and hurt themselves! My approach to turn it into a High 5 did also not work. Too harsh. Oh well…

Recess is often skipped. It is too cold. The kids could get cold. They could slip, because it rained in the morning. Their feet could get wet. Sooo many reasons. And yet all my arguments, that we can stand a little cold feet, get changed when the cloth are soaked, I would come in to help cleaning the carpet… if the shoes get dirty and ruin the carpet… nothing helped.

Thanks to the media, parents world wide get probably more anxious. But what I think is very interesting: the reaction from official institutions. While they just ripped away all 20 parking lots at my old school in Switzerland, because they were tired watching how kids get driven to school, they build new ones here. And while in Switzerland they do a “test” with the kids, if they know all the rules to walk themselves to school, it is simply forbidden to let the kids walk to [my] school in Canada. How silly. Being locked out at recess…. happening still in Switzerland (with the argument that in bad weather various kids would just sneak inside instead of playing outside) or locked in (like here… because of bad weather). Interesting, don’t you think so?

But I will keep my kids “on the long leash.” I love seeing them independent, free, wild, sometimes inconsiderate or immature. But I also think they should be able to make mistakes. And learn to live with it. 

Cheers, Lisa

Not only did I love Lisa’s letter, I really appreciate her saying that sometimes her kids — all kids — may be “inconsiderate or immature.” (Especially at age 3 or 4!) One thing Free-Range Kids does not guarantee is absolutely perfect and charming children. Yes, we try to give them independence and responsibility. But no, we don’t have a “perfect kid” formula. (Yet.) – L.

Calling all parents!

Calling all non-Swiss parents!


Readers — Right now it is a crime in Ohio to hire a kid under 14, without his/her parents’ permission, to do anything for you, including rake your lawn. The idea, as always, is to keep kids safe from evil adults. But the law smacks of zero tolerance, putting leaf work right up there with a striptease. According to Ohio Public Radio:

Jason Romage ran afoul of that law in 2010 when he offered some kids quarters to move boxes into his Columbus apartment. The judge threw the case out, an appeals court agreed and the state went to the state high court.

Melanie Tobias defended the law to the justices, saying the state has a compelling interest in protecting children. But several justices questioned how the law does that without sweeping up innocent people as well.

And one, Justice William O’Neill, noted that even he may have violated the law.

“I moved from South Russell to Chagrin Falls last weekend. The going rate is $10. I had kids unload a truck. Did I break the law? I didn’t ask their parents. They’re kids that are known to me and to my kids. Did I break the law?”

Gotta love a judge who lays it on the line like that! And if you listen to the report (it’s under 2 minutes), it’s fun to hear Tobias wriggle to defend a law that so clearly was written without any thought of how it would affect most adult-child relationships. But when you see the whole world as one big predator, you write bad laws and then you squirm to defend ‘em. Simple as that. – L.

A child and some leaves? I smell a felony!

What kind of pervert hires a child to rake leaves?

You read that right, readers (thanks to the Coventry Patch website). Here’s what  got a Rhode Island 7th grader suspended for three days:

toy gun

My favorite part of this perfect tale of a society gone wild with fear and irrationality is that the kid will now miss the class field trip to — you’re going to think I’m making this up — SALEM, MASS!

I do hope school administrators see the irony of visiting a place we look back on now with disbelief, wondering how could people have been so cruel and crazy as to believe in witches?

Some day students will visit the Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School in Coventry, RI, and wonder: How could people have been so cruel and crazy as to believe a toy the size of a quarter posed any threat whatsoever?

And when they wonder that, I think they will also wonder when and why we outsourced our functioning brains to worst-first rules that deem almost everything a threat to kids. Yes, almost everything. – L