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Tolerance waning for zero-tolerance rules
Question of the Day
DENVER | Ten years after the Columbine massacre, some states are losing their tolerance for the zero-tolerance policies that proliferated in the aftermath of the nation's deadliest high-school shooting.
A week before Colorado marked the 10th anniversary of the iconic tragedy Monday, the legislature sent to the governor a bill making an exception in the state's zero-tolerance policy on weapons in schools. And on the day after the anniversary, Texas lawmakers will take more steps toward loosening their state's rules.
Colorado state Sen. Kevin Lundberg said he proposed the legislation in his state after Marie Morrow was expelled for leaving three facsimile drill-team rifles in her car in the school parking lot. She missed six days of school before a school hearing officer allowed her to return, after the story made national headlines in The Washington Times and elsewhere.
The bill isn't exactly sweeping - it allows students to bring facsimile or prop rifles to school as long as they leave them in their cars - but it passed unanimously in both houses. Efforts to do more were met with "pushback," said Mr. Lundberg.
"We tried to add a little common sense," said Mr. Lundberg, a Republican. "I wasn't trying to challenge zero-tolerance policies on dangerous weapons; I was trying to define what a dangerous weapon is."
Coloradans honored the Columbine victims Monday with gestures both sober and hopeful.
Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. ordered flags lowered at half-mast for the day, while the state legislature approved a resolution calling Columbine an example of "triumph over tragedy."
"Colorado will not just become a metaphor for tragedy, but that we can triumph over the worst of humanity," said state Rep. Ken Summers, who was working as a pastor in the Columbine area at the time of the shooting.
Twelve students and one teacher were killed a decade ago when two student gunmen stormed the school. They earlier had planted pipe bombs in backpacks throughout the campus and a larger bomb, which failed to detonate. The two committed suicide before a SWAT team stormed the building.
Gun-control advocates held a rally Monday outside the state Capitol, where 13 people lay on the ground to symbolize those slain by the two gunmen. A memorial service was scheduled for Monday evening at the Columbine Memorial at the park next to the school in Littleton, Colo.
Columbine High School, which was refurbished after the attack, was closed for the day. Mourners held a candelight vigil Sunday night at the memorial and placed flowers on plaques bearing the names of the deceased.
Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey canceled an episode scheduled to air Monday titled "Ten Years Later: The Truth about Columbine." In a message posted on her Facebook page, she said she pulled the episode after viewing the footage because it focused too heavily on the two gunmen.
States had begun to pass zero-tolerance laws after the Gun Free School Act of 1994, but those efforts intensified after the Columbine shooting. Provisions mandating expulsion or suspension for bringing firearms to school were expanded to include any weapon.
It soon became clear that "weapon" could be defined as anything from a pencil to a machete. The result was a rash of horror stories about students suspended or expelled for bringing plastic knives to school in their lunches, keeping nail-clippers in their lockers, even pointing finger-"guns" at other students.
In response, a few states have moved to relax their laws. Utah now allows students to bring asthma inhalers to school without violating the zero-tolerance policy on drugs. In Rhode Island, both houses of the legislature approved a bill in 2007 that allows school officials discretion in punishing students who bring weapons to school.
In Texas, a state Senate committee is scheduled to consider Tuesday a bill that would allow school officials to take into account "mitigating factors" before punishing students for violating zero-tolerance policies. A House committee approved the companion bill earlier in a 6-0 vote.
The Texas legislation comes partly in response to a 2008 article in the Texas Tech Law Review, "Zeroing Out Zero Tolerance: Eliminating Zero Tolerance Policies in Texas Schools," which concluded that such laws have failed to reduce school violence while moving more students into the juvenile-justice system.
"I believe that we should strive to keep our schools as safe as possible," said state Sen. Mario Gallegos, the Democrat who sponsored the bill. "However, I also know that in the real world, nothing is black and white. In a world filled with gray areas, we must give our school districts the discretion to choose the appropriate punishment for those students who break the rules due to mitigating circumstances."
Pushing the legislation is Texas Zero Tolerance, a group formed specifically to combat the state's zero-tolerance laws. The organization is also backing another bill that would require the prompt notification of parents before disciplinary action is taken.
Fred Hink, the founder and co-director, said the organization started in response to a well-publicized 2003 case in the Houston area involving an honors student who brought a box cutter to school. It turned out her mother had given her the cutter to sharpen her pencils, which is a common practice in Korea.
Such reforms typically face opposition from teachers unions and school administrators. One concern, said Mr. Hink, is that school officials may opt to stick with the zero-tolerance policies even if the legislature gives them additional flexibility.
"The prevailing wind among school administrators is that 'We don't want to have to think about it. It's just not feasible to take these things into consideration,' " said Mr. Hink. "It's extremely frustrating."
About the Author
Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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