- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Public school officials nationwide are banning children from playing "cops and robbers," citing zero-tolerance policies for anything resembling violence at school.
Children are being suspended or expelled, and civil rights activists argue the policies are too harsh because they punish first and ask questions later.
"I think the schools are paranoid, and the policies just don't work," said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, an international legal and educational organization representing several students. Among those punished:
A 9-year-old boy in California, who was threatened with suspension when officials caught him playing cops and robbers. The boy's father, an Army sergeant, removed his son from class to preempt the principal from suspending him.
Two second-grade students in New York, who were suspended and criminally charged with making terrorist threats for pointing paper guns and saying, "I'm going to kill you." The criminal charges were dropped.
An 8-year-old boy in Arkansas, who was suspended for pointing a chicken finger at a teacher and saying "pow, pow."
A 9-year-old boy in New Jersey, who was suspended for one day and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation after telling a classmate of his plans to shoot a fellow classmate with spitballs. Police questioned the boy but did not file charges.
Four kindergartners in New Jersey, who were suspended for three days after they pretended their fingers were guns and said they wanted to shoot one another.
Other games recently banned from school playgrounds include duck, duck, goose; musical chairs; steal the bacon; and tag because they encourage exclusion, theft, bullying, aggression and competition.
Attorneys at Rutherford and the American Civil Liberties Union argue that school-administered punishment has changed for the worse.
Mr. Whitehead said zero-tolerance policies are flawed because they do not take into account children's intentions and often result in school officials suspending a child before telling the parents about the problem.
"This is a Draconian type of punishment that doesn't even look at intent," Mr. Whitehead said. "If you just look at intent in these cases, none of these kids would be guilty of anything."
Attorneys with the ACLU agree.
Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU's Virginia chapter, said the policies infringe on the students' rights to free expression by prohibiting them from playing certain games during their free time.
"Zero-tolerance policies are narrow, unreasonable rules with extraordinary punishments, and that's where the constitutional issues come in," Mr. Willis said.
"Schools should be careful about banning student expression."
Officials at the schools where some of the incidents occurred did not return telephone calls seeking comment yesterday.
However, Gary Thomas, a superintendent of the Silver Valley Unified School District in California, where one of the incidents took place, told the Associated Press the school is trying to resolve the situation with the boy's parents.
Mr. Thomas also defended the zero-tolerance policy.
"We have suspended play when they're using imaginary weapons until the guidelines can be developed to help the staff differentiate between dangerous and imaginary play," he said.
School district officials in New Jersey, where the four kindergartners were suspended, said they will review their policy after one of the student's fathers complained that officials overreacted.

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