By now, you’ve heard the stories: Florida boy suspended for pointing his finger like a gun. Rhode Island student suspended for bringing quarter-sized gun keychain to class. West Virginia middle schooler arrested for wearing a National Rifle Association t-shirt.
Coast-to-coast, it seems our nation’s schools have grown so gun-shy that every implementation of a “zero tolerance” policy entails a massive overreaction on the part of the school.
It’s gotten so bad that one member of Congress, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), actually introduced legislation to prevent schoolchildren from being punished for “harmless expressions of childhood play” like using an imaginary gun.
Even Ohio state Sen. Charleta Tavares (D-Columbus) proposed legislation earlier this year that would overturn the Buckeye State’s law that requires schools to adopt zero tolerance policies.
“We’re looking at using common sense,” Tavares told The Columbus Dispatch. “A gun-shaped edible snack is not a weapon. Children bringing Midol or their own medications for their illness is not drugs.”
The gun paranoia is understandable, of course. No one wants another Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. That should go without saying.
But schools seem to be forgetting one thing: These are still children in their care. They’re not grown adults with the ability to thoughtfully consider how their actions will be perceived. How many 8-year-olds have likely read their school’s student handbook to know the exact policies on prohibited items and the punishment for disobeying those policies?
And while schools should be helping kids succeed, an overreactive suspension does the exact opposite. Instead of using the infraction to actually teach a child, school administrators and officials freak out. All weapons-related incidents are punished harshly, but the mere mention of guns has quickly become the unforgivable crime.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, 94 percent of schools have zero tolerance policies for firearms, compared to 91 percent for other weapons and 88 percent for drugs. The NASP also concluded that zero tolerance policies can be incredibly harmful to children in the long run and are usually ineffective as a means of discipline.
Joseph Lyssikatos, the 12-year-old who brought a tiny gun keychain to school, had a perfect attendance record and was in advanced math prior to his suspension. And before his family negotiated with the school district, the infraction would have been on Lyssikatos’ permanent record, possibly hampering his future success.
Zero tolerance policies ignore the simple fact that kids often behave childishly. These policies strip away all context and intent, essentially treating the kids involved in the aforementioned incidents as actual criminals. And they’re not.