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Education Reporter

'Zero Tolerance' = Zero Common Sense


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LOUDOUN COUNTY, VA - The Lowes Island Elementary School in Loudoun County suspended a 9-year-old boy last month for bringing a green plastic "Nerf" gun to school. Officials recommended that he be expelled for one year, citing a Virginia law that bars students from possessing weapons.

The 4th grader put the 5-1/2 inch toy gun in his book bag to hide it from his younger sisters. A week later, he noticed the toy in his bag while walking out of school at the end of the day and showed it to his friends. According to parents and other students who were present, he did not use it to threaten anyone. The gun was made to fire hollow foam bullets, but had a broken trigger at the time.

Officials say they were following Virginia state policy that bans bringing weapons to school, including toy guns. Loudoun County School Superintendent Edgar Hatrick III told the Washington Post: "In the age we live in, we have to understand that bringing weapons to school is very serious. Everyone wants safe schools, and the only way you can do that is through strong policies."

Others view the incident as an example of what Rutherford Institute columnist John W. Whitehead calls "a deepening cultural problem." Whitehead acknowledges that officials should and have taken strong measures to stop violence and rid schools of real weapons and illegal drugs. But he adds that zero tolerance policies often "trash democratic principles and impose harsh penalties on students accused of minor offenses."

He argues that, as in the courtroom, laws "aren't completely one-size-fits-all." Zero-tolerance policies take away the discretionary ability of teachers and school administrators to discipline children using common sense. "Some states with zero-tolerance policies have authorized local school boards to make exceptions to the rule on a case-by-case basis," says Whitehead. "This exception should be standard practice in all the schools in all the states. According to the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution, the punishment should fit the crime."

Following the toy gun incident, another Virginia school district decided to ban the use of anything resembling real weapons as props in school plays. According to Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, this eliminates about 60% of all school plays that have traditionally been performed. "Scratch most of Shakespeare. No Agatha Christie. Forget even musicals such as Guys and Dolls," he notes.

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