Readers — Here you go. This is from a 25-year-old webmaster who lived n New Hope, PA., when he was 17 and this happened. He later moved to Canada, in part as a result of what this incident revealed to him about America:
Dear Free-Range Kids: I actually ran up against zero tolerance when I was in high school. I had carried a pocket knife with me my entire life (nothing scary, just a Swiss Army knife that was great for art projects or cutting cheese to put in my sandwich at lunch, but not much use if I ever wanted to hurt someone). Where I grew up, in Switzerland, we had “nature days” where everyone was instructed to bring a notebook, a pen, and a pocket knife so that they could take plant samples back to class for further study.
Then I moved to the U.S. Once again, I came from a culture where you were made fun of if you forgot your pocket knife on a school trip. Then I entered a post-Columbine/Zero Tolerance hell. I hadn’t used or even removed my knife from my bag while in school, but I did use it to cut a twig on my way home from school one day, and was apparently seen by one of my classmates. The next day, I was called into the principal’s office where my mother and a police officer waited. The police officer padded me down and searched my bag, obviously finding my knife (which was confiscated). He then escorted me and my mother off school grounds and I was told not to come back until the school called.
We waited in limbo for two weeks until we finally received word that I would have a hearing. I did. There were police officers present, as well as the principal and several members of the school board. It was decided that I should not be allowed back onto public school grounds for a full calendar year, but that I would be sent to a special private school for kids with behavioral problems. As for any legal consequences, the school decided not to press charges, but I would have an appointment with a probation officer who would decide what would be on my record and what my punishment would be.
When I went to the probation officer, he took one look at me and said, “You don’t belong here.” (I later found out why when I met some of the other people he saw on a regular basis!) He said that he had reviewed my case and that the school/police’s reaction was not appropriate, however a report had been made and he couldn’t reverse it. He gave me the lightest punishment he could – the incident would be wiped from my permanent record on my 18th birthday, I had to do a certain number of hours of community service, and I had to meet with a social worker once a week. I also had to notify his office ahead of time if I were leaving the state.
I volunteered regularly anyway, so the community service was no problem. My social worker said I was her “night off” and we just went to the movies once a week on the state dime. The private school I ended up going to was, apart from a couple rough characters, a really cool environment and, as the “trustworthy” student, I got a lot of privileges and responsibilities, including the opportunity of teaching an art class to three autistic 12-year-olds and acting as a teacher’s assistant in other classes.
All along the way, I was told again and again that the school and police’s reaction was completely un-called for. I had made no threats to anyone with my “weapon,” I had not even taken it out on school grounds, and there was a cultural barrier that should have been considered. I had a legitimate reason to carry a pocket knife (which I never got back, by the way). It was just post-Columbine hysteria run amok.
But the truly hurtful part of the whole story is that, about a month before all this started, a boy in my grade got a poor mark on a test and grabbed the first person he saw as he came out of the class (a 15-year-old about half his size) and threw him against a locker. The kid ended up with a broken arm and a lot of bruises. The culprit got a 2-day suspension. So it’s not even that Zero Tolerance is an awful thing that prevents people from using their heads, it also looks only to certain cues and completely ignores kids with real problems who pose a very real physical threat to others around them. No one ever sent this kid to a social worker or a therapist. It was just shrugged off as a “kids will be kids” matter that deserved no more than a slap on the wrist.
The fact that so many of the people who were trying to help me would say, “I would love to make this all go away, but my hands are tied” really scares me. Once you’re caught, there is no possibility of someone saying, “Wait a second, these laws don’t really apply in this case.” All you can do is try to find some wiggle room from within the system.
I think that’s the truest sign of a broken system. — G., in Canada