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Zero-tolerance policies in schools face backlash in wake of gun violence

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In this Feb. 10, 2013, photo, Kelly Guarna’s 5-year-old daughter Madison pose for a portrait in Mount Carmel, Pa. The kindergartener was suspended from school for making a “terroristic threat” last month after her mother said she talked about shooting a Hello Kitty bubble gun. (AP Photo/Jimmy May)

Some experts are now calling for a national rethinking of school zero-tolerance policies, in the wake of several high-profile suspensions involving little kids who have done little more than drawing pictures and shaping fingers into guns.

Automatic discipline — usually suspension or expulsion — comes from a 1990s train of thought that held that if children were punished for petty crimes, then they would be dissuaded from committing more serious crimes. But according to experts, that’s not really happening, The Associated Press reports.


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Instead, the kids are paying overly harsh prices for minute and petty crimes that are often more free-speech and expression issues. Some examples, from AP: A 6-year-old boy was suspended from White Marsh Elementary School in Trappe, Md., for using his hands as “guns” during recess. Or, a Pennsylvania kindergartner is suspended after she tells her friends she’s going to shoot them with a Hello Kitty bubble maker. Or, a 5-year-old in Massachusetts is punished for making a gun out of Legos and pointing it at classmates.

“We’ve seen literally thousands of these kinds of episodes of zero tolerance since the early 1990s,” said Russell Skiba, a zero-tolerance expert at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, who authored a 2006 study that zero tolerance has not improved school security at all, the AP reports.

Other experts agree and say schools already have in place the means of allowing administrators to deal with policy violators.

“Contrary to the myth of zero tolerance, most school board policies provide options and flexibility for administrators,” said school safety expert Kenneth Trump, in the AP report. “What you see is poor decision-making and poor implementation of the policies, rather than the face school administrators are handcuffed in terms of their discretion.”

Part of the problem is overreaction to high-profile acts of violence in schools, Mr. Trump added.

“It’s a normal occurrence to have a heightened sensitivity after a high-profile tragedy, but that does not negate the need for common sense,” he told AP.

About the Author

Cheryl K. Chumley

Cheryl Chumley is a continuous news writer for The Washington Times. Previously, she was part of the start-up team for The Washington Times’ digital aggregation product, Times247. She’s also a 2008-2009 Robert Novak journalism fellow with The Phillips Foundation. She can be reached at cchumley@washingtontimes.com.

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