What we are witnessing, thanks in large part to zero tolerance policies that were intended to make schools safer by discouraging the use of actual drugs and weapons by students, is the criminalization of childish behavior. Most recently, for example, two 6-year-old students at White Marsh Elementary School in Maryland were suspended for using their fingers as imaginary guns in a schoolyard game of  cops and robbers.

The age-old game of cops and robbers is one I played as a child. “I’m gonna get you, robber,” one kid yells, chasing his friend across the playground. The other boy turns and points his finger before racing away. The cops are in hot pursuit. “Bang, bang, you’re dead,” one shouts. “No! Bang, bang, you’re dead!” the other cries, before both melodramatically fall to the ground. Thus goes a game played by boys from time immemorial.

In a new wrinkle on this old game, however, it’s not the cop who gets the bad guy. Now, the game ends when school officials summon real cops–who arrest the kindergartners for engaging in juvenile crime. That happened at a New Jersey school, from which four little boys were suspended for pretending their fingers were guns. At another school, an 8-year-old boy was arrested and charged with terrorism for pointing a paper gun at classmates and announcing, “I’m going to kill you all.” Officials at a California elementary school called police when a little boy was caught playing cops and robbers at recess. The principal told the child’s parents their child was a terrorist. Unwittingly, the principal was right on target: These are acts of terrorism. The culprits here, though, are not overactive schoolchildren; those guilty of terrorizing young children and parents nationwide are school officials who–in an effort to enforce zero tolerance policies against violence, weapons and drugs–have moved our schools into a lockdown mentality.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents, nor are they limited to episodes of cops and robbers.

Nine-year-old Patrick Timoney was sent to the principal’s office and threatened with suspension after school officials discovered that one of his LEGOs was holding a 2-inch toy gun. That particular LEGO, a policeman, was Patrick’s favorite because his father is a retired police officer. David Morales, an 8-year-old Rhode Island student, ran afoul of his school’s zero tolerance policies after he wore a hat to school decorated with an American flag and tiny plastic Army figures in honor of American troops. School officials declared the hat out of bounds because the toy soldiers were carrying miniature guns. A 7-year-old New Jersey boy, described by school officials as “a nice kid” and “a good student,” was reported to the police and charged with possessing an imitation firearm after he brought a toy Nerf-style gun to school. The gun shoots soft ping pong-type balls.

Things have gotten so bad that it doesn’t even take a toy gun to raise the ire of school officials. A high school sophomore was suspended for violating the school’s no-cell-phone policy after he took a call from his father, a master sergeant in the U.S. Army who was serving in Iraq at the time. A 12-year-old New York student was hauled out of school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with an erasable marker. In Houston, an 8th grader was suspended for wearing rosary beads to school in memory of her grandmother (the school has a zero tolerance policy against the rosary, which the school insists can be interpreted as a sign of gang involvement). Six-year-old Cub Scout Zachary Christie was sentenced to 45 days in reform school after bringing a camping utensil to school that can serve as a fork, knife or spoon. And in Oklahoma, school officials suspended a first grader simply for using his hand to simulate a gun.

What these incidents, all the result of overzealous school officials and inflexible zero tolerance policies, make clear is that we have moved into a new paradigm in America where young people are increasingly viewed as suspects and treated as criminals by school officials and law enforcement alike.

Adopted in the wake of Congress’ passage of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required a one-year expulsion for any child bringing a firearm or bomb to school, school zero tolerance policies were initially intended to address and prevent serious problems involving weapons, violence and drug and alcohol use in the schools. However, since the Columbine school shootings, nervous legislators and school boards have tightened their zero tolerance policies to such an extent that school officials are now empowered to punish all offenses severely, no matter how minor. Hence, an elementary school student is punished in the same way that an adult high school senior is punished. And a student who actually intends to harm others is treated the same as one who breaks the rules accidentally–or is perceived as breaking the rules.

For instance, after students at a Texas school were assigned to write a “scary” Halloween story, one 13-year-old chose to write about shooting up a school. Although he received a passing grade on the story, school officials reported him to the police, resulting in his spending six days in jail before it was determined that no crime had been committed. Equally outrageous was the case in New Jersey where several kindergartners were suspended from school for three days for playing a make-believe game of “cops and robbers” during recess and using their fingers as guns.

With the distinctions between student offenses erased, and all offenses expellable, we now find ourselves in the midst of what Time magazine described as a “national crackdown on Alka-Seltzer.” Indeed, at least 20 children in four states have been suspended from school for possession of the fizzy tablets in violation of zero tolerance drug policies. In some jurisdictions, carrying cough drops, wearing black lipstick or dying your hair blue are actually expellable offenses. Students have also been penalized for such inane “crimes” as bringing nail clippers to school, using Listerine or Scope, and carrying fold-out combs that resemble switchblades. A 13-year-old boy in Manassas, Virginia, who accepted a Certs breath mint from a classmate, was actually suspended and required to attend drug-awareness classes, while a 12-year-old boy who said he brought powdered sugar to school for a science project was charged with a felony for possessing a look-alike drug. Another 12-year-old was handcuffed and jailed after he stomped in a puddle, splashing classmates.

There’s an old axiom that what children learn in school today will be the philosophy of government tomorrow. As surveillance cameras, metal detectors, police patrols, zero tolerance policies, lock downs, drug sniffing dogs and strip searches become the norm in elementary, middle and high schools across the nation, America is on a fast track to raising up an Orwellian generation–one populated by compliant citizens accustomed to living in a police state and who march in lockstep to the dictates of the government. In other words, the schools are teaching our young people how to be obedient subjects in a totalitarian society. — John W. Whitehead

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