A case for tolerance

It is understandable that school administrators would want to employ all reasonable means to prevent weapons and illegal drugs from entering their schools.

What is less understandable is when students who clearly had no ill intent are punished for violating school policies regarding weapons or drugs. And that is the basic problem with so-called "zero-tolerance" policies: They leave no room for school officials to consider the intent of the student.

Horror stories abound:

• A Rhode Island kindergartner suspended for bringing a plastic knife to school so he could cut cookies.

• A Utah boy suspended for giving his cousin a cold pill prescribed to both students.

• A Rhode Island principal censoring a yearbook photo because it showed a student who enjoys medieval re-enactments wearing chain mail and holding a sword.

That is why we are heartened to see that several states are seeking to loosen the restrictions in the name of common sense. We hope more states will follow.

"Zero tolerance" first gained favor during the Reagan administration's "War On Drugs" in the 1980s. Such rules spread rapidly after a series of high-profile school shootings, according to a report by the American Psychological Association, which wants to see the most inflexible codes changed.

A decade ago, more than three-quarters of public schools surveyed reported adopting some version of a no-tolerance policy, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

A 1997 survey of more than 1,200 public schools by the U.S. Department of Education found that 79 percent had zero-tolerance policies against violence, 88 percent for drugs, 91 percent for weapons and 94 percent for firearms.

But the tide appears to be shifting.

Mississippi for the last 10 years has allowed local school districts to reduce previously mandatory one-year expulsions for violence, weapons and drug offenses. Texas lawmakers recently have moved to tone down their state's zero-tolerance rules. Utah altered its zero-tolerance policy on drugs so asthmatic students can carry inhalers.

And Rhode Island may soon follow suit. A bill requiring school districts to decide punishments for alcohol, drug and nonfirearm weapon violations on a case-by-case basis after weighing the circumstances recently passed the Senate and House and is now on the governor's desk.

We applaud such efforts. If school administrators are allowed flexibility when considering what to do in the case of a violation, the kinds of horror stories cited above likely will become a thing of the past.

As one Texas lawmaker put it, "It's hard to legislate common sense. If we get intent into part of the code, I think we'll be in good shape."


"Zero-tolerance" policies leave no room to consider intent.

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