The Most Insane Zero Tolerance Story Yet

Hi dkabyznrny
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

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93 Responses to The Most Insane Zero Tolerance Story Yet

  1. Renata Bowers September 3, 2010 at 4:00 am #

    You’re right – this is the worst case I have read about. It’s good to hear that he made the best of his circumstances, but WOW – for him to be put in them in the first place.

    He also brings up an excellent point about bullying and its violent consequences. Here we have a prevalent situation with lasting impact on our youth, and where is all of the hype and hysteria? Heck, how about just a little bit of response? Nowhere to be found.

  2. Anthony Hernandez September 3, 2010 at 4:09 am #

    And you did not file a huge civil rights lawsuit and make a media circus of this because… ???

  3. Frau_Mahlzahn September 3, 2010 at 4:12 am #

    I totally agree to the last point: it’s scary to think that there is no room to interfere, no matter how obvious it is that the punishment is completely exaggerated.

    Btw.: My kids all have pocket knifes, even my 3 year old daughter is allowed to use hers (with a rounded tip) under supervision. My oldest daughter carries hers around all the time — a Swiss knife, probably just like G.’s. My son, however, has to turn his in when he is done using it, although I’m not so worried about him, but more about his friends.

    So long,

  4. Peter September 3, 2010 at 4:14 am #

    Wow, that IS insane.

    From age 10, I always carried a pocketknife (including to school) and still do.
    I (grudgingly) stopped carrying it on airplanes after 9/11/2001.

  5. Frau_Mahlzahn September 3, 2010 at 4:14 am #

    P.S.: It’s not as if we think a 3-year old kid needs to have a pocket knife, it’s just that the one with the rounded tip (which my oldest one originally got when she was five) was handed down to her by her siblings during our summer break up in the mountains.

    So long,

  6. Grimalkin September 3, 2010 at 4:17 am #

    Anthony – I am the poster. I didn’t file anything because I was new to the country, terrified, and so relieved that there was an end (any end!) in sight! During the two weeks that I spent at home with absolutely no word from the school, I seriously considered running away. I can’t even express how scared I was, and I had no idea what was going to happen to me. So when I finally found out that my punishment wasn’t going to be so bad after all, all I wanted to do was keep my head down and make sure that I did everything by the book to survive until the whole mess was behind me.

    At this point, it’s just been too long to do anything about it. If I heard of someone else who was going through it at the moment, I would definitely want to reach out and help in any way I could, but for myself its just something I’ve moved on from and I don’t need the upheaval of a legal / media “circus” in my life.

  7. Jay September 3, 2010 at 4:21 am #

    Because Anthony, he is from Switzerland, and not America where that is a “natural” response. The jump to sue for everything is part of what got you all, and now by extention us in Canada into this situation in the first place.

  8. Joe September 3, 2010 at 4:21 am #

    I grew up in northern Wisconsin and on any given day you could find multiple guns in the student’s and teacher’s cars in our school parking lot. Shot guns and rifles mostly but a few hand guns too. I graduated in 1995. We had plenty of fights – we even had a designated spot where they took place – but no one ever thought about using anything other than their fists. Not sure what changed. We had heavy metal and rap music, we had first person shooter video games, etc. I think the difference is that we DID have access to knives and guns and we knew what they really did. We killed things ourselves and realized that no matter how angry we were – death is permanent.

  9. Anthony Hernandez September 3, 2010 at 4:21 am #

    @Grimalkin, I am sorry you went through that. Myown boy (8 at the time) got suspended frm second grade for 2 days because he brought a Swiss Army knife ot school and was showing his friends. The principal said, verbatim, “It’s obvious he was not intending to hurt anyone or do anything wrong but my hands are tied.” He was living with his mom then and she was a teacher for the same school district so I opted to keep my mouth shut. But he is with me now and that restriction no longer applies. The God whoever intereferes with his development as a free-range child believes in will not be able to help them weather the storm I will unleash!

  10. Anthony Hernandez September 3, 2010 at 4:30 am #

    I agree, Jay, and it’s high time we used the helicopter tactics against them.

  11. Steve September 3, 2010 at 4:56 am #

    Re: “He later moved to Canada, in part as a result of what this incident revealed to him about America.”


    Is Canada really free of Zero-Tolerance policies?

  12. tommynomad September 3, 2010 at 5:09 am #

    Zero tolerance, whether in the courts or the schools or anywhere else, is just bureaucratic laziness. Shenomad and I have already discussed how no kid of ours will ever be forced into a setting with zero-tolerance-anything. Childhood is meant to be free.

    The federal investigation into Columbine determined that it was not a case of school violence BTW, but of domestic terrorism. So technically speaking, school policies based upon that event are misattributed.

  13. Sherri September 3, 2010 at 5:16 am #

    This is common – it seems – school districts, other kids, etc. – singling out those who may be a little different and are, therefore, someone we should “watch” (i.e. the child who turned him in for using the knife on his way home seems to have over-reacted until you hear that the boy using the knife very new to the country and different than the other kids in some ways, and then it becomes maddeningly clear why this boy was being observed at all) BUT allowing the regular bullying behaviors that we are “used to” to continue with lesser punishments (the kid who slammed the other kid into a locker – and, for the record, I have seen a principal do the same to a small, suburban, quiet, middle class kid when he didn’t answer him right away. Hmmmm…. must be OK then). Sorry for what you went through – just awful – and unwarranted.

  14. EricS September 3, 2010 at 5:37 am #

    Grimalkin – that really blows. Not knocking America as a whole, but there have been many immigrants that I’ve known, with the thought of America being the land of the free, where you can start a whole new life filled with prosperity and joy. Like in you case, it wasn’t that cut and dry. Sure there’s more opportunities, but fear and paranoia doesn’t have global boundaries, and racial preference. It affects everyone the same. Sorry to hear that was one of your first experiences here. But I’m also glad that you kept it together and didn’t lose self-esteem. That you made the best of a bad situation, and your parents stuck by you to be who you can be. That’s definitely free-range. And really, that “zero tolerance” isn’t really zero tolerance if that other kid only go 2 days suspension for what he did. Zero tolerance means just that. ZERO. No exceptions. It should be called “convenient tolerance”. It’s whatever the school feels is convenient for them at the time. Which seems to be most of the cases that’s been posted here in terms of “policies” in different areas.

    Out of curiosity, could that possible one of the reasons why you are someone what of an “introvert”? Just curious from your other post on another thread. I like learning about other people’s experiences, been doing it since I was a kid. Helps me to understand others. Even now, I still believe by understanding others, I understand myself.

  15. Nanci September 3, 2010 at 6:05 am #

    Every time I think I can’t be shocked by stupidity anymore I unfortunately find out that I can. I am 33, I graduated high school in ’95, I always had a pocket knife my dad gave me in my purse. I was a great student and very good kid, never in any trouble. The thought that I could be prosecuted for that behavior now days is truly frightening!

  16. Linda September 3, 2010 at 6:10 am #

    Hang on – the school didn’t press charges, but he still had to meet with a probation officer, have something on his permanent record until he was 18, had to do a certain number of hours of community service, and had to meet with a social worker once a week? Surely that’s not even legal? Whatever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’? (Yes, he was ‘guilty’ in this case, but surely they couldn’t put him through any kind of a punishment without a trial first?)

  17. Melanie September 3, 2010 at 6:17 am #

    Wow. Kudos to that guy for withstanding all of that with such grace. This is definitely a worst case scenario!

  18. Annemette Kuhlmann September 3, 2010 at 6:21 am #

    Scary what stories like these tell the children, that suddenly find themselves caught in a zero-tolerance-nightmare. This is like a Kafka-novel…
    Will they grow up believing in fairness or do they suddenly realize that doing what’s right doesn’t get you anywhere but into trouble. Ultimately you’d think that they could end up in schools and with probation officers that’ll show them the shadowside of society, where they’ll learn never to trust society and make a life on their own with all means….unless you trust that all probation officers will react as the one described.
    Somebody ought to do research on how zero-tolerance effects children involved….

  19. Dot Khan September 3, 2010 at 6:31 am #

    I’ve carried a multi-tool pocket knife that a friend found and then sold to me for $5. He was always losing things and figured he’d get more use out of it if he borrowed it from me. That was almost 30 years ago.

  20. Edward September 3, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    God I wish someone who knows how would collect all stories such as this, properly present them to whichever Congressional Committee needs to see them and get this zero tolerance madness erased from this country forever!

  21. Scott September 3, 2010 at 7:43 am #

    Glad to see his comment about the swiss army knife was bumped to a full post, it blew my mind and I wanted to see more discussion of it.

  22. KarenW September 3, 2010 at 7:48 am #

    I never owned a pocketknife, but as a serious art student in high school, I always had an Exacto knife and a utility knife. They were REQUIRED. We used them for everything from making mats for framing our work to sharpening our pencils. You could probably slit someone’s throut with one if you really wanted to, so I’m sure they would land you in the same trouble now (I was in high school in the 80’s). So, what on earth do art students do now??

  23. Nicky September 3, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    @KarenW depends on the school but usually the teacher does anything that has to do with sharp objects. What was really insane was that we did rock candy in grade 11 chem and the Teacher wouldn’t let us cook the candy ourselves but we were doing flambe in Home Economics.

    No tolerance policies were adopted in Ontario in the late ’90s when I was in grade school. They were dropped as ineffective and punitive in about 5 years. I can’t really say for the other provinces of Canada though.

  24. Kacey September 3, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    A very similar thing happened to a friend of mine in high school. I had already graduated and gone off to college, but kept up with her. She and another girl brought small paring knives to school to peel their apples since they had braces & couldn’t eat with the peel on. Luckily, their parents forced a hearing with the school board and nothing permanent happened. Both girls were in the International Baccalaureate program, a prestigious academic magnet program, even being forced to change schools would have caused major upheaval. Zero tolerance policies simply don’t work… as anyone in education who is not elected or appointed to their position.

    Oh, and as a Canadian citizen with a lot of family in education….. it’s not much better north of the border.

  25. Sammi September 3, 2010 at 9:18 am #

    I think it depends where you are in Canada. In Saskatchewan, where I went to high school (graduated 2007), my boyfriend carried a pocket knife and never got in trouble for it. In fact, our school had an outdoor education program where students were required to carry knives.

  26. Grimalkin September 3, 2010 at 9:25 am #

    No, I’m sure Canada isn’t free of zero tolerance policies – but it was different and it was away. That was most important 😉

    @EricS – No, I was always an introvert. Even as a baby, I apparently didn’t like to be around people for very long (which my mother says was a blessing since I learned to get myself back to sleep really early). Research seems to show that introversion/extroversion is not a learned characteristic, but rather something you are simply born with. More interestingly, it appears to be hereditary – which certainly bears true for me since my dad is a textbook introvert.

    @Linda – It was the probation officer’s call and I agreed to it. Had it gone to trial, I would have been found guilty (I was accused of carrying a knife on public school grounds and a cop found said knife in my bag). That guilt would have been on my record regardless, and my punishment (including whether it would be erased from my record at 18 or not) would be up to the judge. Since the probation officer was giving me the lightest possible punishment, and since there was absolutely no question that I would have been found guilty, he decided that the best thing to do was for me to just sign off and proceed without a trial.

    The issue about the school pressing charges is that it would have had to go to trial if they did. As it was, the probation officer had the option of having everyone just sign off and making it go away for me as quietly as possible.

    @KarenW – That was exactly why I carried one. I was on Honours Art and had always enjoyed doing crafts. I’ve especially enjoyed the “temporary art” of using living plants and weaving wreaths, that kind of thing. Try doing that without a Swiss Army Knife! I’d have to carry around a small arsenal of sharp metal tools as an alternative! (Then we’d see what the zero tolerance people would make of me!)

    @Nicky – That’s wonderful to hear as I’ve moved to Ontario and will be putting a little one into the school system in just a few (very) short years!

  27. Donna September 3, 2010 at 9:46 am #

    @ Grimalkin – You are actually lucky. Anyone caught with a weapon at school in my area gets expelled for 365 days. You are not allowed to attend the alternative school. Your only schooling options are finding a private school that will take you or home school. You are always prosecuted in juvenile court (unless 17 at which point you are prosecuted for a felony in adult court). If you have no juvenile criminal history, you’ll get 2 years probation, although you can get up to 5 years in a juvenile detention center.

    And this happens all the time. I’ve represented an 8th grade honor student who got expelled and prosecuted for accidently bringing a carpet cutter to school after helping her stepfather renovate a rental house the night before. And another who forgot a knife in her purse. I’ve represented a kid in adult court who was charged with a felony for having a knife in his glove compartment at school and another who had brass knuckles bought at a gas station hanging from his rear view mirror for decoration. None of these kids threatened anyone or showed anyone these items. Two never even brought them into the school building.

  28. Matt September 3, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    Another word for Zero Tolerance is intolerant.

  29. Emily September 3, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    G, I want to hug you. And mail you a replacement pocket knife.

  30. Dino September 3, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Linda: In many states, I am told, juveniles are denied the right to constitutional speedy trial. I learned this when my ward was accused of a petty crime. Without a day in court, he was sentenced to six months probation and community service. I was not allowed to be present for his mandatory probation appearances, but was told that neither of us could leave the state until the time was served.
    He willingly far exceeded the service hours and, along with a letter from me pointing out his medical stituation and otherwise exemplary deportment in the community, including recognized leadership as a Scout, got his probation lifted yesterday, two months early.

  31. kherbert September 3, 2010 at 10:39 am #

    I have no problem with zero tolerance for actual violence, but there is also common sense.

    I had a 5th grade student come up to me one morning and he said, “I made a big mistake.”

    Turns out he went camping and forgot to take his pocket knife out of his backpack. We took the knife to our AP. Who listened to the boy’s story. AP explained he would have to lock it in the safe (SOP for anything of real value taken from students not because it was a knife), and student’s parents would have to come get it.

    The father did punish the boy, for not following Dad’s instructions about making sure all camping equipment was put up properly.

  32. Aaron September 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    I’m only 37 and I remember taking a rifle to school on a regular basis. They had lockers for them in the Vice Principal’s office, kids were encouraged to practice good gun safety, and there were shooting clubs. My rifle of choice at the time was a 30-30 Winchester, so these weren’t little .22 plinkers. They used to have an elective (you could get a note to not be there that day) Hunter’s Safety course in gym class.

    Now you can’t even draw pictures of soldiers and flags and all that patriotic hoo-hah and include a gun, or you’re on suspension.

    My daughter will never set foot in a publik skewl. Pink Floyd was right.

  33. Nicole Down Under September 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    This story makes me feel so sad. It’s more than just a broken system – when those who are charged with teaching and safeguarding our children go so far that they hurt people in the name of ‘protecting’ them, it’s a broken future.

  34. Tim September 3, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

    No one has mentioned yet, that these procedures do nothing to prevent the turmoiled student we’ll see on the news, bring a weapon and injure others anyway!

  35. Thomas L. Knapp September 3, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    When I was young — I don’t remember exactly how young, but it was before we moved from the city to the country at the end of first grade — the nickel gumball machine at the grocery store had pocketknives.

    They weren’t big pocketknives — the blade was maybe an inch long — nor were they especially sharp, but they were pocketknives. I collected them. Every week when we went to the grocery store, I got one (I remember getting pissed off because I kept getting red ones; there were also yellow and green and maybe some other colors).

    I’m absolutely certain that I got my first pocket-knife when I was no more than 10, and equally certain that it went to school in my pocket every day and was used for whatever appropriate task came up. I remember comparing and trading pocket knives (and later bigger knives) with my friends at school.

    Hell, one time in high school a friend of mine brought the new 9mm pistol he’d received for Christmas in to show off to everyone. Nobody batted an eye at the 30.06 rifles hanging in the rear windows of pickup trucks during deer season.

    None of this was THAT long ago — I graduated high school in 1985. WTF has gone wrong since then?

  36. Claudia Conway September 3, 2010 at 6:02 pm #

    When I was six, I once brought a packet of matches into school… my friends and I had decided to burn the school down, obviously, only after everyone had gone home; because then we thought we might not have to go to school. It was rather silly, especially as I didn’t even dislike school – but it was a childishly naïve act and not at all sinister (we didn’t even know we’d just go to another school or a temporary building if the school burned down, nor that we weren’t likely to start a proper fire with a match or two etc) We were caught striking some in the playground, too scared to let them catch onto anything. We got given a big lecture on the dangers of fire, and about a girl the teacher knew who was horribly disfigured in a fire, which put the fear of God into us.

    I sometimes wonder what would have happened in an equivalent incident these days. Would I have been removed from the school? Sent for psychiatric assessment to get to the root of my ‘desire’ to set fire to things? Would I have been marked for life as unstable, a ‘pyromaniac’ at six?

    I never had any such idea again – it was entirely a game of naïve children who were too young to understand how the world works; we just thought that if there was no school we could play all day. But I worry that now adult levels of intention/understanding and disturbing psychiatric reasons are too often read into childish whims (labelling young children ‘racist’ or ‘bullies’ when they can’t really understand what they’re doing) and it does far more harm than good.

  37. Grimalkin September 3, 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    @Donna – In my area, it was a legal requirement for the state to offer schooling to all persons under 18. Since I couldn’t go on public school property, it fell to them to find me a private school and pay for it (had I refused that school, they would have been off the hook).

    I definitely know how lucky I was. I can’t remember what the different charges were, but I think that felony was one of the options. I ended up with ‘misdemeanour.’

    @Emily – I actually never got a replacement and have been knife-less ever since. *hug*

    @Tim – That’s the part that really bothered me the most. There were kids in that school who had real anger issues, who were causing real harm to other students. But because they didn’t do it with a weapon, it didn’t fit under the schools zero tolerance policy and no one thought “Hey, maybe someone should intervene and teach these kids to deal with anger and disappointment constructively before they grow up and have families to push around.” It was all about policy, not about what would actually be best for the kids or for their safety. As others have said, it was a reactionary and ill-thought policy put in after Columbine when everyone’s emotions were still running high, and no one could question it because… Columbine!

  38. Korou September 3, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    Appalling. Just appalling. Congratulations on handling it so well, and even making it a positive experience. It reflects well on you, and very badly on the system.

  39. Chris A. September 3, 2010 at 10:00 pm #

    In my small town private school back in the early 80s we had a junior hunting and fishing club. We were allowed to bring in our rifles one day to properly set the scope before deer season started. I seriously doubt anyone even considered the possibility of a problem. It seemed as natural an unimportant as anything else in junior high at the time. Some kids may have brought their guns on the bus.

  40. N September 3, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    This reminds me of something that happened in my neighborhood. One mom was complaining that she saw a child (about 10 year old boy) with a knife. She described it and I said it sounded like a Swiss army knife, and I knew this kid was really into Boy Scouts, so I said it’s probably just a pocket knife since he’s a boy scout. And the mom said, “Yes, but he was using it to sharpen the ends of sticks!” And I said, “That’s whittling. That’s what kids do with those knives.” And she said, “Well, but my daughter was outside!” As if this boy whittling in his backyard is a threat to her daughter in her backyard. Crazy. Don’t people know what whittling is anymore? Did she think this boy was going to throw little shaprened sticks at her daughter? I just don’t know.

  41. Dee September 3, 2010 at 11:41 pm #

    “So, what on earth do art students do now??”

    I have this vague recollection from high school in the early 1990s that we had utility knives and exacto knives available in the classroom, and we were warned that they could not leave the classroom.

  42. sonya September 3, 2010 at 11:51 pm #

    Interesting – I was thinking of getting my daughter a Swiss Army knife for her 11th birthday, since she really enjoys camping/crafts/outdoors, and I had one at her age…Looks like I’ll have to make sure she checks it’s not in her bag/coat every morning when she goes off to school….

  43. Ashley September 4, 2010 at 12:06 am #

    I’ve heard several stories like this, and they’re terrible, but not all schools are like this.

    I’m 26, graduated high school in 2002 in the suburbs of Chicago, and I was heavily involved in technical theatre. You know, running the lights, building sets, etc. Everyone who did tech eventually bought a Leatherman knife, typically the Supertool, and used it regularly. I personally had the Supertool and the Mini, which means that I had 3 knives on my person at all time while in high school. Many of my friends did, and some even wore them on their belt pockets. On top of this, I was on the auditorium staff, which meant I also carried around the master key to the school, as did several of my friends.

    So, you have several knife-wielding geeks running around with keys that open every single door in the building. Not only did the principal know about this, we were PAID for it!

    Of course, it’s not like my school was some free-range heaven. After Columbine we had security cameras put in the school (the auditorium staff rec room which was our “locker” and had couches, a tv, a fridge, etc. was the room that housed the security monitoring station; we could see what was going on around the school while we ate lunch), and there were “deans assistants” monitoring all the doors and major hallways at all times. My good experience is entirely a matter of the privilege of the nerds, but it did happen post-Columbine.

    I still carry that knife around with me regularly 🙂

  44. ReflectiveAgent September 4, 2010 at 12:27 am #

    Wow! Given his experiences at the private school where he had the opportunity to teach art to autistic children — and I’m guessing all on the state of PA’s dime — I’m almost thinking of sending my kids off to school with a pocketknife!!

    Just kidding…nothing like zero-tolerance laws. The “zero” means “zero” room for thoughtful reflection and due process.

  45. Dan September 4, 2010 at 1:47 am #

    I’ve got to say that the powers that be have gotten pretty stupid about things. This is very similar to a case where an Eagle Scout was suspended for 20 days for having a knife locked in his car.

    Common sense, reason and personal accountability have all fallen by the wayside to the nanny state. Zero tolerance is a pretty stupid idea, since it doesn’t allow any flexibility for the different circumstances in each individual case.

  46. gramomster September 4, 2010 at 1:52 am #


    I had a young friend a few years ago (he’s since moved to Miami) who was expelled with no recourse from his private school for having an exacto knife. He was a sophomore in high school, and had attended this Christian K-12 since K. There was a total student body of 137. K-12. But, zero tolerance. So even though they’d known this kid and his family since the then-16-year-old was 5, he got tossed. He was working on a project in the art room on his own, teacher was in the prep room, he decided not to wait for the teacher to come do the cutting.
    This is a kid who was very free-range and included at his home. Dad, grandad and uncles all certified mechanics, shop out back… kid had been working with power tools, sharp knives, machinery since early childhood.

  47. BrianJ September 4, 2010 at 3:32 am #

    These Zero Tolerance stories remind me of the war on drugs. That seemed insane before I started looking into it. Now it is clear that there are profiteers who are pushing the WoD.

    I wonder who profits from Zero Tolerance policies. Something both this nutty and this durable just can’t be self sustaining stupidity. There has to be a some group pushing this craziness for their own benefit.

    I agree with Anthony on this, we need a test case here. A case that can be brought to court and media, that can expose this idiocy. In the process, the proponents of these policies will have to make themselves known or see these policies fall away.

  48. Janet September 4, 2010 at 4:48 am #

    I’ve subscribed to your blog for a long time but couldn’t bring myself to read it bc it wasn’t convenient on the pc. Now that I have the iPhone, it’s so easy & your entries r short. I’m so thankful for that. Also, to those around me I’m very free range w my kids but now that I’ve been reading consistently I’ve noticed how subtle the fears & unnecessary precautions have crept into my mind/heart. You can say that I’m being awaken slowly to the absurdities of our modern American life. Thank you again!!

  49. Anthony Hernandez September 4, 2010 at 4:52 am #

    I must not fear.
    Fear is the mind-killer.
    Fear is the littledeath that brings total obliteration.

    I will face my fear.
    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to
    see its path.

    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

    Only I will remain.

    by Frank Herbert

    Read this.
    Memorize this.

  50. JeninCanada September 4, 2010 at 5:59 am #

    The culture of fear in the States is definitely creeping North and into Canada and our school systems.

  51. Justin M September 4, 2010 at 6:25 am #

    I feel you. Freshman year of highschool I had some vitamins on me in pill form ( Flinstones to be exact ). A druggie girl was caught flushing drugs down the toilet and claimed I had given her caffeine pills and an empty pill bottle. No dice there, but since I did have pills on me, and it was zero tolerance, I was still suspended for 2 weeks and got to go to a school panel. They looked at my case once and practically threw it out, my punishment being that I attend 3 nights of a drug support group. @_@ This was back in 2001.

  52. LEA September 4, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    Schools and zero tolerance policies are simply nuts. My high school junior can’t bring a paring knife for fruit at lunch. She had a pair of pliers confiscated simply because she had no specific purpose for having them on her at that moment. She is an art student as well as in drama and stage crafting (building sets). They often need tools like pliers, screwdrivers, exacto knives and other random tools and knives. The arts departments moto is “We are poor”, so they never have enough of these to go around and sometimes none at all. Sadly the students are absolutely not allowed to bring any tool with a blade or point onto school grounds. Chains (like for wallets) aren’t even allowed. You are expelled for 365 days on a weapons offence and those are weapons. She had a rounded putty knife one day and had to prove she was in an art class or another teacher was going to confiscate it. They don’t even let students provide their own compass in math classes anymore. The math department has to provide then for in class use only. Students have been suspended and expelled for having nail clippers with a tiny little nail file on them. It is insane and I worry all the time about what they might decide is a weapon that she brings to class to use in class.

  53. Emiky September 4, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    The school district I was in had Zero Tolerance–on bullying and harassment. And they were HARSH! Knives? Not allowed at school, of course, bad, yadda yadda, but unless they were part of the bullying/harassment, the punishment for being caught with one was reasonable. When I taught, I kept one in my classrrom–out of reach from students, but I’m a Scouter. I need a knife. I’m proud to say bullying was taken seriosly. I think it abound be, but it has to be real bullying, not the stuff where a kid overreects because that’s how they were raised.

    Interestingly enough, many bullies are not necessarily the suffering kids with low confidence but the kids who are overly praises and coddled by parents.

  54. Brie B. September 4, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    To be fair, the location of your school is important even within the US; for example, in the school district in the large city where I went to high school in the latter part of the 00’s, you would likely be sent to alternative education for possession of any kind of weapon, even if it was in your car (although at my school itself, being that it was so small, if a teacher caught you with a knife that you obviously weren’t using to harm someone, the likely response would be, “I didn’t see anything, but you should probably never bring that thing I didn’t see back here again”). In the small-town/rural farmland high school my husband went to, also in the late ’00s, he and everyone he knew carried (sometimes large) knives, and nobody cared, because, well, sometimes you need a knife when you’re out in the country.

  55. 1st birthday baby September 4, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    he is from Thai, and not America where that is a “natural” response.

  56. Pentimenti September 5, 2010 at 2:59 am #

    My son in second grade found a pipe (as in water goes through it) on the school ground, left from some construction work. He picked it up and was carrying it in the sleeve of his jacket. He was grilled for a long time about its purpose. “What could you do with this?” “Build things” was his reply. “What *else* could you do with it?” he was pressed. He really couldn’t think of anything. Finally, he said, “Well you could drill holes in it and make a flute.” He was suspended for a day and a half for bringing a deadly weapon to school.

    And then two weeks later his teacher asked the whole class to bring in hedge trimmers so that they could make Christmas wreathes.

  57. EW September 5, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    Some 10 years ago, at the age of 17, my son wanted to have a khukuri (a long heavy knife/cleaver of the Gurkha warriors, see here:
    He saved money for months and bought himself one. He even carried it several times to school until his math teacher saw it and advised him to leave the knife at home. And that was it. Nothing else happened. But this is Czech Republic. Oh, and he carried the Swiss army knife since he was ten.

  58. Alex September 5, 2010 at 6:37 am #

    At my high school, a student had been helping someone move into a new house (or had been moving himself, I forget). Among the boxes of things moved was one with kitchen knives in it. One of the knives fell between the seats of his car. A random campus narc, looking into all the cars on the lot (as they apparently routinely do) saw the knife. Zero tolerance, student expelled from school.


  59. ninja September 5, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    Watching you on TV. Good for you. Kids are too overprotected today. When I was a kid my parents let me travel alone and I survived. I learned some very good lessons too. It was a risk but it paid off. (I’m a ninja now!) 😀

  60. Lafe September 5, 2010 at 7:01 pm #

    I keep seeing this phrase “possession of a weapon” alongside “suspended for 365 days” and I’m just aghast. I say every single (sensible) parent in such an area needs to keep their kids home from school. When asked why, they need to answer, “Well, if my kid is attacked, i’ve taught him that ANYTHING can be a weapon! His forehead, his elbow, his backpack, a heavy book, the ice-pack in his lunchbox. So I just had to keep him home.”

    “Weapon” describes the USE of a thing, not the thing itself. A brick can be used to build a home, or it can be used as a weapon. A stick on the ground can be used to help an old man climb a hill, or it can be used as a weapon.

    These zero-tolerance morons are intentionally confusing this distinction, but why? You bring (sometimes mistakenly) a TOOL to school, something that is useful in art class, shooting sports after school (my kid has to bring a bow to school regularly), or left-over from helping your uncle lay carpet, and some school official just gets to call it a “weapon” and that’s it?

    Either keep your children away from these insane people (who should NOT be educating them), or stand up when this happens and shout for the world to hear, that it’s the school’s DUTY to society to prove that the object in question was brought with the intent to USE it to harm others.

    When these policies are enacted, sensible parents need to be at meetings raising these points and threatening to take their child out of a school that won’t listen to reason. Often, the only reason these zero-tolerance things get enacted is that a nervous administrator or a few helicopter parents push it through and no one takes the time to review it and push back before it happens (or raise a stink after it happens). If it’s a local ordinance or state law or something the school has no choice in, take your kid out of public education or take some time out of your busy life to protest loudly at wherever your lawmakers meet.

    If you don’t do anything, the nanny state wins one little victory after another, and then one day you look back and wonder how things got so weird.

  61. Lafe September 5, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    Here’s a reminder of how they ran things in Narnia, for a comparison:

    “And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.”

    I think it’s time to move there.

  62. kherbert September 5, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

    Aarron you are wrong not all schools are like that. I have kids who every year that draw pictures of soldiers, weapons, comic book characters etc.

    In 10 years I’ve referred 1 child who drew a picture of him killing his older and younger brothers then himself. The boy has a genius IQ his older brother is MR, his younger brother is autistic.

    My student had been told all his life that his brothers were his responsibly. If they got “bad reports” he was punished. These bad reports were often not discipline issues, but things like Autistic son got scared by a loud noise and still was upset. The parents wanted to know why my student hadn’t protected his brother.

    Dad wasn’t all there, and Mom is MR. So at 9 he was the most adult person in the house, and he was breaking. The school got some county agencies involved and the family has some support now. He is a 5th grader and I actually saw him smiling and joking around with other boys last week.

  63. Donna September 5, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    “I keep seeing this phrase “possession of a weapon” alongside “suspended for 365 days” and I’m just aghast. I say every single (sensible) parent in such an area needs to keep their kids home from school.”

    Nice theory, however, completely impractical for the real world. Most parents are not able or do not want to homeschool their children. I actually fit in both categories. You are more than welcome to just keep your kids home from school without homeschooling to make a point, however, you will both end up in court – your child for truancy and you for violating the compulsatory education law.

    “When these policies are enacted, sensible parents need to be at meetings raising these points and threatening to take their child out of a school that won’t listen to reason.”

    First, many of us were not involved in the school system when these policies were enacted many years ago. I would have loved to get involved in my current school to avoid these policies, however, it appears that my crystal ball that told me that I would be moving to this particular town and into this particular neighborhood after I had a child was broken. Most people do not become involved in the school system until after they have children enrolled – and I suspect that your input would be unwanted and suspect, particularly if male, prior to that time. Although I will fight against any enlargement of the ridiculous rules, changing the ones that already exist are more difficult.

    Second, threatening to remove your kids from the school is the pure definition of a non-threat. Public schools certainly couldn’t give two shakes as to whether YOUR child attends them or not. A few less kids in an overcrowded school are actually desirable rather than punitive, particularly if it appears that the parents of those kids are going to go against the grain. Even privates schools aren’t going to be affected by this threat unless you personally are a substantial financial contributor or the free range parents make up the majority of the student body.

  64. Lafe September 5, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    Donna, I’m sorry but “they set it up that way before I came along” doesn’t make it any less wrong. If something is wrong then someone should try to make it right.

    Where I live, public school funding comes directly from how many students are in their seats when attendance is taken each day. Saying you’ll take your kids elsewhere gets attention. I realize that probably isn’t the case everywhere

  65. Cerwydwyn September 6, 2010 at 1:48 am #

    Pretty much this same thing happened to my son in 8th grade. He had been homeschooled and we lived on a farm and he decided he needed to meet some kids…so we sent him to the local public school. One morning he put on his jeans from the day before and ran off to catch the bus, not having checked his pockets, one of which contained a pocket knife.
    He eventually noticed the knife and told a friend about it, knowing that if he got turned in he would be in deep trouble.
    He did not end up with anything more than a suspension, which would probably have ended up being expulsion, had we not just said, “Never mind. We’ll go back to homeschooling.’

  66. Susan September 6, 2010 at 3:53 am #

    That’s one of the reasons I homeschool my kids. I don’t want them getting in trouble for an innocent action.
    You are right that our laws sometimes don’t consider the innocent. They assume everyone is a criminal. There are so many laws that no one could possible follow them all. If the lawmakers would only understand the slogan, “Guns don’t kill, people do.” It’s not your pocket knife that’s dangerous, it would be a crazy person with a pocket knife who would be dangerous. And that crazy person can use anything around to harm someone–a brick, a fork, a schoolbook, a candlestick, etc.

  67. homunq September 6, 2010 at 6:15 am #

    I especially like the irony of the eagle scout suspended for a pocket knife in his CAR. Which one of these things is more deadly?

  68. Donna September 6, 2010 at 8:16 am #

    @ Lafe – It is true everywhere that funding comes from the number of kids in school. However, unless you are in an extremely rare public school district, the school has more kids than it can best educate – spacewise, teacherwise, and moneywise. A few going to private school is actually wanted rather than not. The only way that the school board is going to care is if you can take a large number from “desirable” neighborhoods with you. I don’t think that the free range philosophy has the numbers to do that particularly in the “desirable” neighborhoods (i.e. white, professional, upper middle class) which seem to be the prime helicopter breeding ground.

    It’s also a completely idle threat for most. I could threaten to remove my child from her school but I can’t actually do it. Private school is beyond my means right now. Even if I didn’t work and could homeschool, I refuse to do so as I don’t want that life for my child. I don’t think me sitting in jail for refusing to send my child to any school is an acceptable protest to school policy since my child will be in foster care (far worse than any school issue she faces). This is where most of America falls. No ability to actually proceed with a threat of removing a child from a public school (or they likely would have already done it with the state of public schools these days). So brainstorming some realistic ideas to defeat these rules would be more helpful.

    And I didn’t say that I don’t fight to knock down stupid ruies but I do disagree with the implication that we were resting on our laurels when the rules were passed to start with. Most of the idiotic rules in my child’s school are actually older than my child. Getting rules that truthfully few have any issue with to be re-addressed is difficult. Let’s be honest, I can reference a number of stupid cases involving weapons at school like G’s making it to court but I work in a criminal justice system that pulls from many different schools. Situations like G’s happen only rarely for each individual school. Most parents’ viewpoint – as long as it isn’t their child getting dinged – is going to be that 1 or 2 overreactions to protect 1000 kids is okay. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try, just that it’s going to be an uphill battle even to get the zero tolerance rules reconsidered.

  69. binhle September 6, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

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  70. Heather September 6, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

    What happened to going to court? How can they sentence you to probation without a trial. Who decided this? Be warned Canadian schools are getting more and more like American schools.

  71. Jay Young September 7, 2010 at 4:15 am #

    Virtually the same thing happened to me when I was six. Who doesn’t carry a pocket knife on a farm? I had it with me for some boy-scoutish thing I was doing with a couple of guys in my class (none of us were actually Scouts).

    But They found out about it, I was hauled into the office, my parents were called, my class got some kind of lecture on safety, and I learned the words “juvenile delinquent” applied to me. And this was in 1963.

  72. Emily September 7, 2010 at 5:36 am #

    I live in Canada, and mostly grew up in Canada (as an army brat I did spend a few years overseas though.) I graduated from high school ten years ago, and can recall being in high school when the Columbine Shootings happened. My school went to it’s own version of “zero-tolerance.” My high school was set in an affluent suburban town just outside a major city, in a very conservative part of the country, with hyper-involved parents, and very high expectations, but even still, zero-tolerance meant violations could not be ignored. Fighting around the school meant a one-week suspension for the instigating party. If a person was known to be the victim of bullying and simply defended themselves, there were really no consequences save a trip to the councillor’s office to discuss the bullying and personal/psychological effects thereof. If you were caught with drugs on school property (usually weed) also one-week suspension with the dime-bag obviously confiscated. Now for weapons? Well they were classified in two different categories. Guns, bomb materials, or other clearly identifiable weapons were class A, and resulted in expulsion from the school district for the remainder of that school year at which point there would be a hearing about letting the child back in, or forcing them to attend a special school for problem kids the next year. “Weapons” that were likely simply accidentally brought, or whose dominant uses were for non-violent activities (Swiss-Army knives, box cutters, heck even hunting knives, or small camping hatchets since people camped a lot) were class “B” and were confiscated, locked up and returned to the parents of an underage student (17 and under) or to the 18 year old students themselves at the end of the day with strict instructions not to bring it back (intentionally) even if you were an Honours student with a 90%+ average. This was post-Columbine. This always seemed reasonable to me. Zero-Tolerance meant nothing was overlooked, or completely swept aside, not that Draconian measures were needed to deal with everything. My school never fostered a “culture of fear” which to our educators was the worst thing about Columbine – school being made a place you were afraid of.

  73. Carman September 7, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    I had a similar thing happen to me in elementary school. Luckily the principal used common sense and I did not get into any trouble.

  74. Ron September 8, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    Why didn’t the parents tell the school system to go f*** themselves and homeschool the kid? That is what I would do with my daughter in a heartbeat.

  75. Grimalkin September 8, 2010 at 10:41 pm #

    @Ron – Because my mother, a single parent, had to work to support us.

    Homeschooling is great, but is fairly contigent on either being independently wealthy, having a spouse with a job that can support a family, or having a job that allows one to work from home. For all others, it’s unfortunately not an option.

    The private school I ended up going to was excellent, though. There was a 2:1 student:teacher ratio, though most of the upper grades had 1:1 classes. It was like being homeschooled, but by people who were trained in the varying fields.They also selected teachers based on experience in the fields they were teaching, so I was taught calculus by a retired engineer for example. Works great because we had concrete examples to go with everything learned. I think I definitely would have missed out had my mother found a way to homeschool me.

  76. J.T. Wenting September 9, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    @Lafe: most public schools have waiting lists, often you need to enroll your kids years in advance to have them able to enter at 1st grade (my sister told me stories of some schools having waiting lists for 4 year olds that were 6 years long, you’d have to enroll your children in those schools before you even got pregnant in order to have them admitted).
    Loosing kids through expulsion or parents taking them elsewhere is no problem. In fact it may bring them more income as they now can list 2 kids having been enrolled for that 1 slot during the year (yes, it sounds weird, but no doubt it can happen).

    @Heather: automatic sentences, no court for juveniles. The decision by the school counts as a conviction, no appeal possible, a police officer was present making it legal. Yes, it’s abysmal, but that’s the way things are with zero-tollerance policies. Had he actually used that knife and slashed someone, it’d have been a cause for the courts, but would likely have been brushed aside as too much work unless there was serious injury and he’d have had a few weeks suspension. But now the automatics go into full swing and he gets expelled and has a record as a juvenile delinquent.

  77. knife sharpener September 16, 2010 at 11:44 pm #

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  78. dulcie September 17, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

    I just found myself feeling frustrated the other day when I wanted to send a peach to school with my son for lunch. Not wanting to slice it ahead of time and allow it to get slimy, I felt pissed that I could let my son take his swiss army knife to school so that he could deal with his lunch on his own. When we remove trust and independence from our children or there bigger issues to fear?

  79. Don September 20, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    I may be wrong, but my understanding is that post-Columbine,

    The Federal Government passed a law against possession of weapons on school grounds and mandating expulsion.

    These zero-tolerance policies were an attempt to comply with the Federal Law.

    This is the result when we look to the Federal Government to pass a universal solution to a local problem.

    The reality is that Columbine events are usually not spontaneous events. These are planned in advance and Zero-tolerance policies do nothing to prevent them.

    The funniest thing of all, if the Federal Law had never existed, there was nothing to prevent schools, that felt they had a problem, from instituting these types of policies all on their own.

    Why they felt they needed a law is beyond me.

  80. Yehudit September 21, 2010 at 7:02 am #

    “….When I was young — I don’t remember exactly how young, but it was before we moved from the city to the country at the end of first grade — the nickel gumball machine at the grocery store had pocketknives…..”

    I remember those….. 🙂

  81. happymom4 September 21, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    I remember my Dad being upset and unhappy if my brothers DIDN’T have their pocket knives with them–including going to and from school. In his imind, a well-prepared boy/man ALWAYS had his knife sharp and ready for whatever needed to be done–a package quickly opened, a string cut etc. etc. I could tell you a story of a young boy who took his knife along to church and when his family’s vehicle was hit head on by a drunk driver literally saved his Mom’s life when her seat belt locked, and then began to tighten and choke her air out of her. (True story–I know the family personally). NOW, my (home-schooled) teen goes to Science class, taught by a * homeschool* mom, and we are informed that she has a “ZERO WEAPONS policy” and yes, pocket knives are weapons, and any one showing up with a weapon is automatically expelled from her class–no warnings. We’ve come such a longgggg way . . .

  82. tuco22 September 21, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    Thinking themselves wise, they have become fools.

  83. DensityDuck September 22, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    Hey, just look at it this way. Either you have Zero Tolerance, or you have to go to court every time you do *anything* involving a minority student. You have to prove it’s *not* racism, y’see.

  84. Stella Baskomb September 24, 2010 at 9:56 am #


  85. Jake Whitlock October 9, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    Thats sucks in like 3rd grade we would all go out to the play ground and trade (Pocket knifes) someone got caught and just got it taken away and a talk with his parents. I remember one person who brought in a fucking switch blade for show and tell. Anyways i also live in idaho, 100% tolerence haha

  86. anon June 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Once upon a time in high school a student someone I never found out who told my principal I wanted to kill him. I was called into the office with a security guard standing next to me. The principal asked me if this was true and I told him it was a lie. They had done a search of my person and my backpack to look for “weapons” and they didn’t find shit. A couple words and the principal had a fit over me. No previous problems. I went to him many times about assholes threatening me. Fucker shrugged it off like nothing. The day I graduated and got my diploma I told him he could go fuck himself.


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