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Biting Commentary

Divine Inspiration of the Single-Issue Idiot Part 2

By Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR

Originally Posted

"Bang, bang. You're dead."

A couple of tykes in New Jersey have been kicked out of kindergarten because they played cops and robbers, and held their fingers in the traditional kid's-hand-as-a-gun position and engaged in a mock finger-pointing shoot-em-up with one another on the playground.

Elsewhere, a Texas honor student and all-state swimmer was expelled because a butter knife had fallen from his grandmother's belongings (being taken to Goodwill, as if it mattered) into the bed of his truck.

No, he didn't threaten the principal or classmates with his knife-wielding pickup; it was sitting peacefully in the school's parking lot, 100 yards from the school, with the butter knife -- that's a butter knife, okay? -- harmlessly lying, forgotten, in the truck's bed.

Well, you say, someone else could have gotten it and created mayhem on school grounds. And you'd be right.

Just as you would if you'd said any one of dozens of kids with 3000-pound automobiles could have run down someone on school grounds who had dissed them or their girlfriend or someone from their 'hood. Or stabbed them with a Bic.

A car certainly can be used as a weapon. Or as transportation. And a knife may be a weapon, or it may simply be a tool for eating food.

I'm Mad As Hell, and I'm Not Going to Take it Any More!

As I researched this topic for today's commentary, I got madder and madder. If I were a student, the subhead above would have gotten me both an expulsion and a couple of days' interrogation by local police in the post-Columbine threat-awareness frenzy.

School districts across America, in incredible, unthinking, knee-jerk overreaches, have adopted "zero tolerance" policies intended to deal with drugs, weapons, and sexual harassment.

And what nefarious evil-doers are they catching with their absurd zero-thinking policies? Normal kids doing normal kid stuff.

Good goal, bad methodology.

I Couldn't Help Myself

Kids, of course, have no choice when confronted with authoritarian, zero-tolerance, single-issue idiots who gleefully recite the "no-discretion-it-was-in-our-written-policies" mantra. They can't do what you and I would do, and say, "Fu@# you. I'm leaving and going someplace where adults are in charge."

No, they're stuck, with graduation blown, a police record, and college scholarships a wasted dream, because they had the incredible bad fortune to have cramps and brought a Midol to school or doodled a picture of a gun or a stick figure with an arrow through its head on the back of a test paper.

In our profession, we like to think of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as having some applicability to our lives. Of course, the Constitution has been found not to apply to kids in school. Free speech, privacy, due process, search and seizure, freedom of religion: Kids can't expect any of these guarantees because of court rulings and in loco parentis and equal access doctrines.

Equal Stupidity Is the Goal

It's okay to search a locker or a kid or to censor articles as long as you're not targeting a specific kid, as long as you act equally stupidly with all kids.

I've done a good bit of consulting work for public school districts, and several friends are school communicators. But I'd be loath to take an assignment to use my communications skills to defend application of such a horrid policy of wild overreactions.

The idiots in charge of our local schools have given us plenty of additional zero tolerance lunacy. In probably the most widely quoted piece on the subject, "Can Punishment Lead to Safe Schools?" in the Phi Delta Kappan, Russ Skiba and Reece Peterson include the following table:



Selected School Events Leading to Suspension or Expulsion
as Reported in National News

and Date

of Incident





Columbus, Ohio
May 1998

Nine-year-old on way to school found a manicure kit with 1" knife.

Suspended for one day for violating school's zero tolerance antiviolence policy.

We'd rather the kid have dirty nails.

May 1998

Seventeen-year-old junior shot a paper clip with a rubber band at classmate, missed, and broke skin of cafeteria worker.

Expelled from school; taken to county jail for seven hours and charged with misdemeanor battery; advised by school officials to drop out of school.

Food service workers have had enough! Kid needs additional target practice.

October 1997

Sixteen-year-old sophomore pulled skeet shooting gun out of trunk of car after school to lend to a 17-year-old senior.

Both boys expelled for violating zero tolerance weapons policy; charged by local police with misconduct with a firearm.

And this kid was trying to get that additional target practice. It's a lot harder to hit clay pigeons with a bow and arrow.

Woonsocket, R.I.
March 1997

Twelve-year-old brought and flashed toy gun in class.

Suspended; principal stated that suspension "sends an unambiguous message to students and protects the school from possible legal action."

When toys are made criminal, only criminals will have toys.

Alexandria, La.
February 1997

Second-grader brought grandfather's watch for show and tell; had 1" pocketknife attached.

Suspended and sent for one month to local alternative school.

Time for a change.

Columbia, S.C.
October 1996

Sixth-grader brought steak knife in her lunch box to cut chicken; asked teacher if she could use it.

Police called; girl taken in cruiser; suspended even though never took knife out; threatened with expulsion.

Don't ask; don't tell.

Centralia, Calif.
November 1994

Five-year-old found a razor blade at his bus stop and brought it to school to show teacher.

Expelled for violation of district's zero tolerance weapons policy; transferred to another school.

Hide the cool trinket somewhere outside the school for others to find; whatever you do, don't show the helpful teacher, even if you are only 5!


Cherry Creek, Colo.
May 1998

Fourteen seventh- and eighth-graders sipped a thimbleful of wine as part of a trip to Paris.

Principal suspended and banished to a teaching job in another district for violating school's zero tolerance policy on alcohol.

Did you ever try to get water in France?

Mount Airy, Md.
April 1998

Twelve-year-old honor student shared her inhaler with student suffering asthma attack on bus.

Student barred from participation in extracurricular activities; violation of district's zero tolerance drug policy noted in her record.

Let her die.

Belle, W. Va.
November 1997

Seventh-grader shared zinc cough drop with classmate.

Suspended three days under school anti-drug policy since cough drop was not cleared with the office.

There might have been drugs in those drugs.

Colorado Springs
October 1997

Six-year-old shared organic lemon drops with fellow students on playground.

Suspended for possession of "other chemical substances"; mother complained of administrator use of scare tactics when she was called in.

What about Twinkies?
Or non-organic lemon drops?

Manassas, Va.
September 1997

Nine-year-old boy handed out Certs Concentrated Mints in class.

Suspended one day for violating the policy on "look-alike drugs."

It could have been worse. He might have had lemon drops.

Fairborn, Ohio
September 1996

Fourteen-year-old shared two Midol tablets with 13-year-old classmate.

Fourteen-year-old suspended for 10 days with expulsion forgiven; 13-year-old allowed back after nine days of 10-day suspension after agreeing to attend drug awareness classes.

No tolerance. Period.

Copyright 1999. Phi Delta Kappa International. Used with permission.
*I'll take the blame for the final column of the table.

Skiba and Peterson give other examples, but you get the idea.

The road to hell is paved with the good intentions of school policy-makers, aided by helpful teachers.

Of Course We Should Use Protection

Of course our kids and our society need to be protected from sociopaths. But a one-size-fits-all "solution" certainly solves nothing; zero tolerance equates to zero intelligence.

I'm glad I write a weekly commentary, because I'm angry and I want to get this out of my system. It's going to take one more week of terrible examples -- I've saved some of the best ones -- before I calm down enough to finish this commentary and say anything the least bit thoughtful.

In the meantime, I hope these incredible policies offend you as much as they do me. Send me your opinion of single-issue, zero-tolerance zealots.

Even if you disagree.

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