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Initially an attempt to prevent students from falling victim to senseless acts of violence while in school, the gradual decision of school boards nationwide to implement zero tolerance policies in regard to weapons, drugs and alcohol is only proving to victimize students in another way: through their permanent records.

The problem began when President Clinton enacted the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated a one-year expulsion for students caught in possession of a firearm. Taking the idea further, school boards across the country have dreamed up so many additional stipulations to add to the list that students like Ashley Smith, 11, are being suspended for such trivial reasons as bringing a Tweety Bird key chain to school: the chain fit into the school's weapons category. Because of ridiculous rules like the one that affected Ashley, zero tolerance policies are causing good students who have no malicious intent to receive the same punishments that disturbed students with malevolent objectives receive.

Thus, school districts across America must reform their zero tolerance policies because they do not consider a student's intent, they violate a student's right to due process, they violate a student's right to privacy, and they mar a student's permanent records.

The most obvious discrepancy with zero tolerance policies is that they are blanket policies that punish all students in "violation" of them. Unfortunately, most of these policies do not have stipulations that allow for a review of a student's intent. Thus, a student who wants to practice good hygiene and brings Scope mouthwash to school suffers the same punishment as the student who wants to murder his classmate and brings a .22 caliber firearm to school.

One case study illustrates the foolish lengths to which this policy can be taken. Shanon Coslet, 10, was a student at Twin Peaks Charter Academy in Longmont, Colorado. One day her mother packed a small knife in Shanon's lunchbox in order for her daughter to be able to slice an apple. When Shanon realized the knife might violate her school's zero tolerance policy, she turned it into a teacher who told her she had done the right thing. Regardless, Shanon was still expelled from school.

This example illustrates how this blind, blanket policy leads to the harm of innocent students; ironically, the same innocents that administrators had hoped to protect in the first place. No doubt the zero tolerance policy has justly punished students with malicious intent, but the alarming increase of student expulsions across the country leads us to believe that many innocents like Shanon are being punished as well.

In California's Orange County alone, expulsions for weapons violations nearly tripled just three years after the implementation of a zero tolerance policy. Suspensions were up 329 from the 1989-90 to 921 in the 1993-94 school year, with a gradual increase every year since. We cannot believe that the actual number of students bringing deadly weapons to school tripled in only a few years. A more plausible explanation is that students like Shanon are being smothered under an unyielding blanket policy.

Without a review of a student's intent, zero tolerance policies deny those same students their right to due process. The United States Constitution stipulates that "no person…shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Using this principle as a guideline, school boards must see that their blanket policies violate the spirit of the Constitution.

Though the founding fathers may not have been able to foresee the development of a zero tolerance policy, indubitably they would not have endorsed a "one-size-fits-all" punishment devoid of a democratic hearing. The American Civil Liberties Union spokesman, Ed Yohnka, states, "These are regressive, narrow-minded, knee-jerk policies [that] eliminate the ability to exercise some human and humane judgments." We agree with Yohnka. The current action of the school boards violates the student's right to due process, a fact that places the policy in supreme violation of the United States Constitution.

Most zero tolerance policies also infringe upon a student's constitutional right to privacy. In one case, a teenage girl was suspended after a dog sniffed out a bottle of Tylenol in her backpack. Similar to what the Supreme Court found in Roe v. Wade, many civil rights activists believe that the girl's right to privacy was violated.

Some schools with zero tolerance policies allow over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol or Midol, but they require that the medications be submitted to the front office and administered by the school nurse. In many cases, however, school nurses are not available and embarrassed females must receive their Midol or, even worse, their birth control pills, from the hands of an often-male administrator (incidentally, birth control pills are prescribed for reasons other than preventing pregnancy). For these reasons, many girls choose to preserve their privacy by keeping their over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs to themselves. Consequently, many of those girls are being suspended for violating zero tolerance policies. Students who wish to keep the exact rhythms of their monthly cycle or their doctor's advice private must be allowed to do so.

Lastly, punishment for zero tolerance violations permanently mars a student's school record with a suspension or an expulsion, the two most severe disciplinary actions a student can receive. One tragic example of zero tolerance gone too far involves thirteen-year-old honor student Cosmo Zinkow who was given a two-week suspension for giving his French teacher a bottle of French wine as a Christmas present. Zinkow, who was taking a college prep curriculum, will probably be punished yet again for his benevolent action when his college applications are in review. Not only does the suspension appear on his school record but his grade point average also suffers as a result of missing two full week of school. Almost all zero tolerance policies prohibit "perpetrators" from making up any missed work.

School boards must realize that their zero tolerance policies cause more detriment to students than benefits. They must readjust their policies and examine violations on a case-by-case basis so that only students with malicious intent will be punished for their actions. If administrators can do this, then playful students like the Richmond, Illinois, teen who was suspended for jokingly "firing" a "deadly weapon" (a paperclip) at a cafeteria worker, will no longer be unjustly punished for such trivial acts.

April 2001

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