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 €śoffences€ť committed; they do little, if anything, to improve discipline; and they can cause lasting harm to pupils.
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