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Education Reporter

Zero Tolerance: States 'Add a Little Common Sense'
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Several states are reconsidering "zero-tolerance" policies, the draconian regulations affecting many public school children since the 1990s. Even in Colorado, where the 1999 Columbine school shooting catalyzed a huge increase in zero-tolerance legislation nationwide, legislators have been reconsidering the policies. "We tried to add a little common sense," said Colorado state Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-15th District).

The legislation that Lundberg sponsored added a small exception to Colorado's zero-tolerance policy on weapons in schools. The policy now allows students to bring facsimile or prop weapons to school if they leave them in their cars.

Earlier this year, Colorado public school student Marie Morrow was expelled because there were three facsimile drill-team rifles in her car while it was parked on campus. After she had missed six days of class, a school hearing officer ruled she could return to school after all. Lundberg's legislation responded to that incident. "I wasn't trying to challenge zero-tolerance policies on dangerous weapons," said Lundberg. "I was trying to define what a dangerous weapon is." The bill passed unanimously in both houses, but lawmakers resisted efforts to further clarify the definition of a "dangerous weapon."

In Florida, students have been arrested for bringing a plastic butter knife to school, throwing an eraser, and drawing a picture of a gun. The eleven-year-old who allegedly brought a plastic butter knife to school was handcuffed, taken to jail, and charged with a third-degree felony. Legislation recently passed unanimously by the Florida Senate could change all that by prohibiting schools from calling the police for nonviolent misdemeanors. "Throw an eraser and they want to call it throwing a deadly missile, which is a felony," said state Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville), the senate sponsor of the legislation, which has yet to clear the state house. "When you get into the juvenile justice system everybody thinks your sins are forgiven when you turn 18, and I will assure you that doesn't happen. It's a blemish on your record."

Wise's bill also attempts to "define and distinguish petty acts of misconduct as opposed to offenses that pose serious threats to school safety," and requires Florida schools that still allow spanking to bring their corporal punishment policies under public review every three years at a public meeting.

Texas, Rhode Island, and Utah have also attempted to improve their zero-tolerance laws in the past few years. Texas recently passed a bill allowing school officials to consider "mitigating factors" before they punish students under zero-tolerance policies.

Texas's previous zero-tolerance hall of shame includes the case of 13-year-old Christina Lough, a Houston honor student who was punished in 2003 for bringing a small cutting implement with a two-inch blade to school. Christina's mother, Sumi Lough, grew up in Korea, where this implement is the standard one that students use to sharpen their pencils, and Mrs. Lough gave it to her daughter for that purpose. School officials forced Christina to attend a special disciplinary school for seven days, and removed her as president of the student council and honor society. The school district's attorney, Christopher B. Gilbert, explained the district's rationale: "If we vary from the rules, that's when the rules fall apart."

In 2007, Rhode Island passed a bill allowing discretion to school officials in deciding how to punish students who bring weapons to school. Utah made an exception to its zero-tolerance policy on drugs to allow asthmatic students to bring their inhalers with them to school.

Although these actions in states certainly indicate a trend away from zero tolerance, it is unclear whether school districts, which make and enforce their own zero-tolerance policies, will follow the trend. Fred Hink, co-director of Texas Zero Tolerance, said it is very possible that schools will continue to enforce zero-tolerance policies even if or when their state legislatures change state law to allow greater discretion and flexibility. "The prevailing wind among school administrators is that 'We don't want to have to think about it. It's just not feasible to take these things into consideration,'" said Hink. "It's extremely frustrating." (Washington Times, 4-21-09)

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