- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Two years ago, we watched in horror as children fled from the terror that had invaded their school. What should have been a refuge of safety had been turned into a house of fear. Children were killed for their faith and popularity, and those who survived trembled in pools of their best friends blood.
Such tragedy should have served as a wake-up call for Americans everywhere. But even though a national debate was sparked, the solutions implemented havent worked. Sadly, in those two years we failed to learn the lessons of Columbine.
The fundamental lesson should have been that all children need to be treated equally, recognized for their distinct contributions to our lives and, above all, honored for their humanity that divine touch that imbues each person with a uniqueness unmatched by any other creature. Its the type of lesson that can only be taught through explicit education in moral values which have served all truly functional societies and the lack thereof has contributed to their downfall.
But even if these lessons are taught, they dont have the necessary impact if the actions of school officials outside the classroom contradict their words inside it. And this is the real tragedy of the aftermath of Columbine rather than implementing discipline policies that incorporate the values we should be teaching, school policies instead lead to more dehumanization of our students.
The most glaring example of this trend is what educators call "zero tolerance" policies. Intended to wipe out any trace of danger, the policies have instead been implemented in ways that defy common sense and send the message to children that they are disposable.
A few recent examples among the scores around the country illustrate this point. In Louisiana, a third-grade boy was penalized with a day of in-school suspension for carrying in his notebook a picture he had drawn at home of a soldier dressed in camouflage and carrying hand grenades and knives. The principal defended the suspension by saying the school "cant tolerate anything that has to do with guns or knives."
In New Jersey, two second-grade boys were not only suspended but also actually charged with a crime and taken to court after playing with a "gun" made out of paper in the classroom. The boys said they were just playing cops and robbers. Thankfully, the case against them was dismissed after prosecutors were unable to show that any of their classmates felt threatened by the boys.
Occasionally, school officials dehumanize their students even without the aid of a zero-tolerance policy. In Colorado, school officials strip-searched an 8 year-old boy, making him take off his pants and looking inside his underwear. Officials claim they were looking for signs of abuse. But social services hadnt requested the search, child-protection services werent involved, the parents had no criminal record and hadnt been contacted by any social service agency regarding any problems.
No evidence of abuse was found but the emotional abuse suffered by the child will last a lifetime. Since then, the boys parents have taken him out of public school and placed him in a private one where they hope he will be safe not from classmates with guns, but school officials without a decent regard for the childs human dignity.
What each of these incidents reveals is a disturbing trend toward dehumanizing our children. In an effort to head off another Columbine, school officials are acting as if innocent children are criminals. But as the killings that have continued in our schools since Columbine indicate, treating children as just another zero tolerance statistic will lead to more senseless violence, not less.
Students need to know that they are valued as people. In virtually every school-shooting incident, the shooter has been an outsider, made fun of by his peers and treated as less than human. At one time, parents and teachers could fill the void when peers treated someone as an outcast. Knowing they were cared for and loved both because of and in spite of who they were made all the difference. But faced with intolerant peers, too often todays student has nowhere to turn parents are often tuned out, and ferocious school discipline policies send a message of exclusion rather than inclusion.
As the saying goes, Rome wasnt built in a day. Likewise, our society didnt reach this pitiful moral state overnight. For far too long, too many parents have bailed out of their duties to their children. There has been virtually a total vacuum of moral education in our schools. Turning these trends around could lead to a renaissance among our youth, but it will certainly take time. Yet, if we continue to pursue dehumanizing zero tolerance policies and ignore the human dignity of students, such a bright new day will never dawn.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of the Rutherford Institute and editor of Gadfly Online.

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