Well, I’ve tried – believe me, I’ve tried – but my frustration has reached the level where I now have zero tolerance for zero-tolerance policies. I know that sounds contradictory, but most logically thinking people believe that the zero-tolerance idea has gotten totally out of control.

I want to share with you some of the more bizarre examples of zero-tolerance policies adopted by school systems around the country. Some are downright headshaking and have reached a new level of ridiculousness.

Zero tolerance, by its very definition, negates the opportunity to include sound judgment when applying these rigid policies to specific “offenses,” and eliminates any consideration of common sense. I’ll show you what I mean, but first a little background is needed.

Zero-tolerance policies came on the scene in abundance following the passage of a law in Congress known as the “1994 Gun-Free Schools Act,” which mandated a one-year expulsion for any student bringing a firearm or bomb to school. The intent of the law was to prevent serious acts of violence and to help keep schools safe – can’t disagree with that thinking.

Adding to the fever of the need to act was the ever-increasing tragic shootings in schools, colleges and other public locations throughout the United States in recent years. One of the most infamous school massacres was at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher, injured another 24 students and then committed suicide. This and many other instances of the horrific and senseless slaughter of innocent children and adults by deranged killers resulted in school officials desperately seeking methods to make schools safer.

In their efforts to prevent repeated tragedies and to demonstrate action on their part, overzealous school boards and administrators quickly adopted zero-tolerance policies that had unintended consequences, such as punishing students in harsh and unreasonable ways for minor or even questionable policy violations.

Obviously, the aforementioned tragic events were compelling and demanded attention, but in too many cases, panic-driven school officials overacted by adopting policies that they actually proudly proclaimed to be 1. Totally inflexible; 2. Applicable to all students in the same way regardless of age, i.e., 5-year-old kindergartners all the way to seniors in high school; and 3. Could not be influenced by extenuating circumstances. In other words, common sense would not be applied regardless of the vagueness of each “offense.”

As a result of the actions by these educational leaders, zero-tolerance banners were, metaphorically speaking, draped over their schools, exclaiming that the schools were putting on blinders and playing hardball. One of the advantages in adopting zero-tolerance positions is that school officials become exempt from making judgment calls regarding each violation because zero tolerance means zero deliberation.

Therefore, the policies that are supposedly designed to protect the students, even to the point of absurdness, in reality protect the school administration. Zero tolerance seems way too easy – kind of like a protective shield, but for whom?

Let’s see what you think regarding a few all-too-common examples of student offenders and their related punishments.

Several kindergarten students in New Jersey were suspended because of the school’s zero-tolerance policy on guns. It seems the 5-year-olds were playing “cops and robbers” using their fingers as make-believe guns. These “dangerous acts” by children got them kicked out of school. Phew, probably got them out just in time. Who knows what a loaded finger could do!

Then there is the 9-year-old boy who was nearly suspended when school officials discovered that one of his LEGOs was holding a 2-inch gun. The LEGO was a replica of a policeman – his father was a policeman.

A 6-year-old Cub Scout brought a small dinner knife to school that was packed in his lunch and as a result he was suspended and sent to an “alternative school” for nine weeks, to be reformed.

Should I tell you more? A second-grader was suspended in March 2013 for biting a Pop-Tart into the shape of a mountain. School officials thought the shape looked too much like a gun. Seriously?

Unfortunately, theses policies have saturated our schools and the examples of innocent children suffering from these shortsighted policies are shamefully numerous.

There is a little bit of good news among all of the craziness. Some U.S. courts have struck down a few of the more devastating policies, stating that extenuating circumstances must not be ignored.

More comprehensive policies in schools were needed to increase safety, but like so many good ideas, when you mix in misguided motives and personal agendas, the end results are most often disastrous, especially to many unsuspecting “dangerous” children.

Zero tolerance policies may protect some people, but not the children. As a former teacher, I give them a zero.

Bill Diamond of Windham served as District 12’s senator from 2004-2012, and is also a former Maine secretary of state.


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