Zero Tolerance for Federal Mandates

Published May 31, 2016

Federal education mandates always carry unintended consequences, and well-intended, top-down rules often lead to absurd outcomes. Keep that in mind as President Barack Obama and Congress overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act to give the federal government unprecedented power to dictate what children learn.

To appreciate just how much harm good intentions can do, look no further than your local school district’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

Every state and school district in America has strict rules against violence and drugs on campus. That’s as it should be. But that common-sense policy shouldn’t require a federal law.

Nevertheless, in 1994 Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act in response to a rash of school shootings. The law required every district to establish a zero-tolerance policy for guns or risk losing federal funds. Any student caught with a gun on campus faces a mandatory one-year expulsion and possible prosecution. Most districts toughened their rules after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 (which in itself shows how poorly the federal law worked). Over time, zero tolerance expanded to drugs, knives, sexual assault, gang paraphernalia, and explosives—all of which were of course already illegal.

Fearful of not being strict enough, many schools have gone further still, banning anything that even vaguely resembles a weapon or a drug. Students across the country have faced suspension or expulsion for wearing t-shirts with pictures of guns; bringing tiny, unrealistic toy guns to school; packing common kitchen utensils in lunch bags; and possessing candy.

Yes, candy. In 2008, school officials in New Haven, Connecticut suspended eighth-grade honor student Michael Sheridan and stripped him of his title as class vice-president after he was caught buying a bag of Skittles from a classmate. The school district had banned candy sales in 2003 as part of a district-wide “wellness” policy, so the school considered the candy contraband.

Zero tolerance rules put sensible school administrators in an impossible bind while giving petty tyrants cover for their abuses. Most states allow little or no discretion in the way principals mete out discipline. Twenty years ago, the remedy for a vast majority of these cases would have been simple: Confiscate the offending item, call the parents, explain the problem, and extract a promise from the student to leave it home next time.

Now the first phone call is often to the police. New York City police marched seventh-grader Alexa Gonzalez out of her middle school in handcuffs last month for doodling on a desk. Vandalism is wrong, and Gonzalez should have been punished. But handcuffs and a mugshot? Outrageous.

Similarly, 17-year-old Matthew Whalen was suspended from his upstate New York high school last year for having a two-inch knife as part of a survival kit he kept in his car. His principal called the police. It turns out a two-inch knife isn’t considered a weapon in New York state, but the district superintendent suspended the Eagle Scout for 20 days anyway.

Nobody but a school bureaucrat seriously thinks a two-inch knife or a bag of candy is a threat. Instead of keeping students safe, such mindless officiousness only undermines respect for discipline.

We can be thankful some educators are willing to risk incurring the federal government’s wrath by being sensible. The school board in Portland, Oregon last month voted to relax the district’s zero-tolerance policy after an eight-year-old was suspended for possession of a four-inch toy gun meant for an action figure.

Texas lawmakers, who have long bucked pressure to conform to many federal education mandates, last year passed a law allowing districts to consider “extenuating circumstances,” such as the student’s intent and disciplinary history, when addressing zero-tolerance violations.

Others would do well to reintroduce a bit of common sense and discretion into the classroom. One-size-fits-all discipline doesn’t work. And why should a one-size-fits-all curriculum be any different?

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News.