- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

CENTENNIAL, Colo. When Nepata Godec received a call from Dry Creek Elementary School last month telling her that her son and his friends were being sent home from school, she prepared herself for the worst.
"I thought somebody was in the hospital or something," said Mrs. Godec.
But she was even more shocked when she discovered the real reason. It turned out 10-year-old Aaron Godec and six other fourth-grade boys were being suspended for the rest of the day for pointing their fingers like guns during a game of army-and-aliens on the playground.
"So I thought, 'Yes? Then what? Did somebody fall or poke somebody in the eye?'" she said. "But that was it, and we needed to come to school to pick up our son. I couldn't believe it."
That wasn't all. As the stunned parents later discovered, the principal, Darci Mickle, also quizzed the boys on whether their families owned guns.
For 10-year-old Connor Andrew, whose father formerly worked as a licensed hunting guide, the question placed him in an impossible position. He had been warned not to discuss his father's firearms in front of other children lest they become curious and ask to see them.
Torn between obeying his parents and obeying the principal, he chose his parents. "I asked Connor about it, and he started to cry, and he told me he lied to Mrs. Mickle and answered 'no,'" said his father, Charles Andrew.
"He was afraid he would get in more trouble, and that [the family] would get in trouble," Mr. Andrew said.
Because Dry Creek is located about 20 miles from Columbine High School in the south Denver suburbs, it would be easy to dismiss what happened March 25 as an isolated incident, an extreme but understandable reaction from a community with reason to be paranoid. Easy, but wrong, because Colorado isn't alone.
That day, the Dry Creek seven joined a growing fraternity of students across the nation who have learned the hard way about "zero tolerance." A popular stance for schools grappling with the specter of school shootings, drugs and alcohol abuse, the strict no-second-chances policy has resulted in maximum punishment, including detention, suspension, expulsion and even arrest, for what was once viewed as normal horseplay.
School officials defend zero tolerance as an unfortunate but necessary reaction to increased demands for school safety. The decade-old policy generally goes hand in hand with anti-bullying programs that have become widespread across the country since the April 20, 1999, shooting at Columbine, which left 15 persons dead.
At the Cherry Creek School District here, school officials insist the Dry Creek incident was handled properly. They maintain that the punishment was not a "suspension," although some of the parents say that is what the principal first told them.
"School safety is the Cherry Creek School District's first concern and the primary concern of parents who entrust their children to our care every day," said district spokeswoman Tustin Amole. "Our handling of this incident is well within the boundaries of district policy and common sense."

Who's bullying whom?
But critics argue that the harsh policies have had the unintended consequence of traumatizing children for what is still widely viewed as acceptable behavior. They also ask whether zero tolerance actually makes schools any safer.
"This is just more bullying, but it's worse because it's bullying by the school administration," said Dave Kopel, research director for the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Golden, Colo. "It's absurd, and it's an example of the reactions to Columbine, where something terrible happened and you want to do something. Unfortunately, in this case, you're doing something by hurting innocent people."
The issue has become one of the few on which libertarians and liberals find themselves in agreement. In a June 2000 report, the Harvard Civil Rights Project criticized zero-tolerance policies as "needlessly harsh" at best and barriers to minority education at worst.
"Obviously teachers and administrators need to retain the authority to remove students who endanger the safety of themselves and others," said the report. "However, needlessly harsh measures are being taken against students who pose no threat whatsoever to the school or to others all under the guise of Zero Tolerance. A 'one size fits all' approach is inappropriate and is causing great harm to many students who deserve more compassion and a 'second chance.'"
The American Bar Association has also weighed in against zero tolerance, recommending in a February 2001 report that school districts adopt more flexible disciplinary policies.
"Unfortunately, most current policies eliminate the common sense that comes with discretion and at great cost to society and to children and families do little to improve school safety," said Ralph C. Martin II, chairman of the ABA Criminal Justice Committee.
Even gun-control advocates aren't sold on the policy. John Head, founder of SAFE/Colorado, said the Dry Creek finger episode sounded harmless enough to him.
"It sounds to me like innocent child's play," Mr. Head said. "I'm not sympathetic to disciplining for that kind of play. What I have a problem with is when children have guns and point them at each other."
Other examples of what critics see as zero tolerance run amok include:
March 15, 2000: Four kindergarten students playing cops-and-robbers in Sayreville, N.J., are given three-day suspensions.
Feb. 2, 2001: An 8-year-old boy in Jonesboro, Ark., is suspended for three days after pointing a chicken finger at a teacher and saying, "Pow, pow, pow." Jonesboro was the site of a 1998 school shooting that left two dead.
March 23, 2001: Two second-graders playing cops-and-robbers in New Jersey are charged with making terrorist threats.
The incidents have become so widespread that they are now chronicled on several Web sites including overlawyered.com, ztnightmares.com, and thisistrue.com. But zero-tolerance proponents argue that such episodes are anomalous and misleading.
Ken Lane, Colorado deputy attorney general, says the occasional overreaction to student mischief is outweighed by the benefits of keeping schools safer.
"You hear these horror stories from time to time, but you have to remember that zero-tolerance policies didn't develop out of thin air," Mr. Lane said. "The schools are dealing with some serious situations here."
Because school districts are required to protect the privacy of their students, he said, they cannot always reveal everything they know about each disciplinary action.
"Sometimes what's reported isn't the whole story," Mr. Lane said. "You have to respect the school districts and allow them to respond based on what they know of the situation."

'That would mean tolerance'
According to parents, the seven boys at Dry Creek were playing a game in which some were soldiers and some were aliens. They pointed fingers at each other to simulate guns but stayed in a remote part of the playground away from other children.
When a playground monitor found what they were doing, she called them to the patio, then marched them to the principal's office. The boys said they didn't realize that they had done anything wrong until the principal told them.
Mrs. Mickle said she asked the boys if they understood that what they did was against the rules, and she said they admitted that they did. She pointed to the district's conduct code, which parents and students must read and sign at the beginning of the school year.
The Student Policy and Discipline Handbook defines "violent and aggressive behavior" as "threats directed, either orally (including by telephone), by non-verbal gesture, or in writing, at an individual, his or her family or a group." Under "intimidation/bullying," the code includes "any written or verbal expression, physical act or gesture, or a pattern thereof, that is intended to cause distress upon one or more students."
Even without the school policy, zero tolerance is the law in Colorado, considered at the forefront of the movement. Colorado law mandates expulsion for students who "carry, bring, use or possess a firearm or firearm facsimile at school."
Nowhere does the law mention fingers, but Mrs. Mickle said the conduct code gives administrators the latitude to deal with problems as they arise. "It's definitely not spelled out in the district discipline policy because we can't predict what every student is going to do," she said. "That's what we're here for: to interpret those details."
In other words, one principal's harmless gesture can be another principal's violent act. To clear up any confusion, the fourth-grade teachers went back a few weeks later and told their students in no uncertain terms that finger guns were forbidden.
By that time, word of the incident had already spread throughout the school. "The teacher was telling the kids about the policy, and Aaron said that everyone in the classroom was looking at him," Mrs. Godec said.
Given that the finger-gun ban was never explicitly stated in the rules, what parents really want to know is: Why not first give the boys a warning? Parents say none of the seven boys was a chronic troublemaker, and most had never seen the business end of the principal's office before.
"I told [Mrs. Mickle], 'That's not right. They should have been given a warning first,'" said Kristine Kinney, mother of Jorge Marquez, one of the seven boys. "If she had told any one of those boys if she had said, 'That's not proper behavior' I guarantee you they all would have said, 'OK.'"
But that's why they call it zero tolerance. "'No tolerance' means more than just a warning, because that would mean tolerance," Mrs. Mickle said.
To some parents, such rationales sound like zero judgment, not to mention a breach of due process. "They weren't throwing pine cones, they weren't playing with sticks; they were off by themselves not bothering anyone," Mr. Andrew said. "It just burns me up. I just don't think you treat kids that way."
Mr. Andrew was also angry over what he saw as the principal's chutzpah in asking the students about private family matters such as gun ownership. "It's none of her business," he said. "If she wants to know that, she needs to ask me, not Connor."
But the district is standing behind the principal. "The district must know whether a student has the means to carry out a threat of violence to help us determine the level of the threat of violence against other students or staff," said Ms. Amole, the spokeswoman.
Mr. Head backed the district on that decision, saying that society has a legitimate interest in knowing where the guns are. "I know that doctors are doing it, and increasingly parents are doing it asking if there are guns stored in the home before letting their child play at someone's house," he said.
For teachers or principals to ask such questions, however, amounts to invading a family's privacy by targeting its most vulnerable members, say critics. "Clearly that's outrageous," Mr. Kopel said.
"That's like asking what political party your parents belong to, or how they voted, or whether they've ever had an abortion," he said. "It's none of the schools' business how parents exercise their constitutional rights. The first thing I'd say is, that's extremely bad judgment. The second thing is, that principal should be fired."

Safety first?
Of course, if zero-tolerance policies worked, that might be the end of the argument. As critics point out, however, there's little evidence to show that they actually make schools any safer. Indeed, a 1997 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that even after four years, schools with zero-tolerance policies had more incidents of violence than those without.
Zero tolerance's defenders argue that schools with significant violence problems are more likely to enact such extreme measures in the first place. But critics argue that the policy better start showing results or risk losing its legitimacy with the public.
"Zero-tolerance strategies have begun to turn schools into supplemental law-enforcement agencies but demonstrate little return, despite a decade of hype," said Russ Skiba, director of the Institute for Child Study at Indiana University in Bloomington and Reece Peterson, vice president of the National Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders.
In an April 2000 article for Education Digest, "Zap Zero Tolerance," the two concluded that the policies were more effective at providing cover for school administrators than students.
"In the face of an apparent inability to influence violence in schools, harsh measures are intended to send a message that the administration is still in charge," they said. "Whether it is effectively received or actually changes student behavior may be less important than the reassurance that sending it provides to administrators, teachers and parents."
Chris Dunmall, whose son Travis was one of the boys suspended in the Dry Creek case, called the action so much window-dressing. "It makes the administration safer from legal action in the future," he said. "It doesn't make the school any safer."

Dreading school
Harder to measure is the effect on students caught up in the no-tolerance climate. For Travis Dunmall, said his father, the experience has made him more cynical.
"He's learned that there are some really small people out there who actually get in power sometimes," Mr. Dunmall said. "He's learned to question authority, which is probably not a bad lesson."
Other boys took the punishment harder. As they waited to leave school, one of the boys began crying for fear of his parents' reaction. A couple of the boys wondered aloud whether they would be arrested.
When Aaron arrived home that afternoon with his father, Mrs. Godec said he looked "discombobulated."
"I looked at him, and he had been trying to be brave for his dad, but when he saw me his bottom lip was quivering," she said. "So I just held him. He kept saying, 'Mom, I don't know, I don't understand. I'm bad, but I don't know why.'"
"After that, he dreaded going to school, and my son loves school," she said.
Upon their return to Dry Creek after spring break, the seven were given a week of lunchtime detention, during which they had to sit in the school foyer or hall during recess. That week, Aaron came down with a series of headaches, something that had never happened before, said his mother.
"He's not inclined to get into trouble he's never been to the principal's office before and he was freaked out," she said.
Because they were seated in public, she said, the detention turned into a week of public humiliation. Other children laughed and made jokes as they passed them on the way from the cafeteria to the playground, said parents.
"They were sitting in the foyer and they were supposed to read," Mrs. Godec said. "But Aaron told me, 'Every time somebody would pass by, Mom, I just put my book up over my face and hoped they wouldn't recognize my shoes.'"
His friend Connor was plagued that week by stomach aches. His mother tried to ease the punishment by taking him out to lunch one day, "but that was a mistake, because then he didn't want to go back to school," Mr. Andrew said.
"It was an embarrassment," Mr. Andrew said. "To set those kids up for peer persecution, that's not right, either."
Even as the backlash against zero tolerance builds, however, parents say they don't expect the public schools to ease up any time soon. Even with expert opinion and public outrage on their side, all it takes is the specter of one teen-age gunman to send the schools back to zero tolerance.
"I told her [the principal], 'I know you're trying to prevent a Columbine situation, I know you're trying to create a peaceful environment, but it's almost like you want them to walk around like robots,'" said Mrs. Godec. "And she kept saying over and over, 'We have a zero-tolerance policy, and we won't deal with anything.'"
"It's not going to change," said Mrs. Godec, "and it's just going to get worse."

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