13 Zero Tolerance Horror Stories

Published June 12, 2003

It is a common conceit of many reformers and lawmakers that the problems of society can be solved simply by passing a law–then another, and another.

The Volstead Act of 1919 is the best example of such hubris. As an anti-Prohibition verse of the 1920s put it, the eventual result of this approach is the realization, “Goodness sakes, it’s really awful–now almost everything’s unlawful!”

The same couplet could be applied to today’s Zero Tolerance laws, where the complete lack of intent to commit any offense counts for nothing. The laws became popular after a 1994 federal mandate requiring the expulsion of any student who brings a firearm to the campus of a school that receives federal funds.

Here are 13 horror stories from schools where, these days, it seems “almost everything’s unlawful.”

Horror Story #1: Forgotten Gun. In early May, Kenny Gappa, 17, a senior at Cannon Falls High School in Minnesota, was voted “Outstanding Senior” by the local Future Farmers of America chapter. A week later, he had been suspended for the rest of the school year and barred from graduation ceremonies. School officials had found a small-caliber rifle and ammunition in Gappa’s pickup truck. He used them for squirrel hunting and had forgotten they were there.

Horror Story #2: Helping Grandma. Last August, after Taylor Hess’s grandmother had a stroke and was moved to assisted living, the 16-year-old varsity swim team star loaded some of her things into his pickup and took them all to Goodwill. Well, almost all. He didn’t spot a 10-inch-long bread knife that had fallen on to the bed of the pickup. Unfortunately, officials at his high school in Hurst, Texas, did. Hess was expelled for a year.

Horror Story #3: Don’t Hesitate. Keith Post, 10, a fifth-grader at Pyles Elementary School in Stanton, California, had a spotless discipline record and had earned several citizenship awards when he dutifully turned in a pocketknife a friend had found in the school cafeteria one day in April. School officials suspended him for five days for possession of a weapon because he didn’t turn the two-inch-long knife in right away–he had waited two hours, afraid his teacher might think it belonged to him.

Horror Story #4: Taking Drugs. Despite having a bad cold, Dennis Sattley, 15, insisted on going to school. His father gave him a bottle of Symtec throat spray and a bottle of Eckerd’s brand Complete Cold Relief pills. When school officials found out, they suspended the ninth-grader–a solid A/B student–for 10 days since the medications violated the drug policy at Space Coast Junior/Senior High in Port St. John, Florida.

Horror Story #5: Finding Drugs. After finding a bag of pills on the grounds of Pensacola High School in Florida last fall, sophomore Teresa Elenz hesitated to turn them in because she thought school officials would think they were hers. Another student reported the find anyway and Elenz, who is in the International Baccalaureate program for high-achieving students, found herself facing expulsion. After a legal battle, she was suspended for a month. The bag contained sinus medication and pills for seizures and relaxing muscles.

Horror Story #6: Dangerous Weapon. Three 13-year-old boys at North Valley Middle School in La Salle, Colorado were fascinated by a 2 ½-inch-long laser pointer one of them had purchased at a local store and brought to school. School officials saw the laser toy as a “dangerous weapon” and suspended all three boys for a year. One of the students, Mitch Muller, now attends what his mother calls “jail school” with students who brought real weapons to school.

Horror Story #7: Drug Sweep. Last spring, a drug search at the Wagner Community School in South Dakota led to students being confined to their classrooms for several hours while a police dog sniffed around classrooms and students, some as young as six years old. According to court papers, the police dog became unleashed in a kindergarten class and chased students, causing some to cry and at least one to wet his pants.

Horror Story #8: Forbidden Kiss. An alert vice principal spotted the violation on October 17 last year in the hallway at Union Grove High School in McDonough, Georgia: Senior James Maurice was planting a single kiss on the forehead of his girlfriend. As a result of that “inappropriate contact,” Maurice was suspended for two days, which meant the starting varsity linebacker was barred from playing in the homecoming football game. According to principal Rodney Bowler, kissing and hugging excessively distracts students from academics.

Horror Story #9: No Talking. In April, sixth-grade teacher Mary Bond banned all conversation between boys and girls at Peterson Elementary School in southern Oregon as “a preventative measure” after she noticed students showing public signs of affection during lunch break.

Horror Story #10: Sexual Harassment. When a girl refused Sal Santana II’s request to be his girl-friend, the 12-year-old stuck out his tongue at her. When school district officials learned of the incident, Santana was suspended for sexual harassment.

Horror Story #11: Verbal Harassment. While playing a game during recess, a sixth-grader in Grand Junction, Colorado had his ball called out of bounds by another student. He commented the call was “gay,” thinking the word meant “dumb.” He was suspended for two days for saying hurtful things, which his principal regarded as a form of harassment.

Horror Story #12: Deadly Missile. Police at Palm Beach County Public Schools arrested a 14-year-old student and charged him with “throwing a deadly missile,” a second degree felony. The “deadly missile” was an egg the student was carrying in his pocket one recent Halloween. Instead of throwing it, he found himself being handcuffed, read his rights, and led away by police.

Horror Story #13: No Splashing. A sixth-grader in Inverness, Florida didn’t stop when his teachers told him not to jump in rain puddles. He did stop when a police officer at the school took him into custody, charged him with a misdemeanor, and held him in a jail cell for more than two hours.

George A. Clowes is a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute and Managing Editor of School Reform News.

For further information, contact Heartland Public Affairs Director Greg Lackner at 312/377-4000, 773/489-6447 or email [email protected].