Wednesday, June 7, 2000


Zero-tolerance policies victimize 'good' kids

Parents say officials go too far, violate students' constitutional rights

By Julie Foster

Families across the U.S. are becoming increasingly frustrated with "zero-tolerance" policies in the nation's public schools.

Case in point: Parents in Sayreville, N.J., are venting their anger by suing school officials over the suspension of their son for playing "cops and robbers" on the playground during recess.

Known only as A.G., the 5-year-old kindergartner made news after he and three of his friends were suspended March 15 for three days. The boys were guilty of using their fingers as guns and shouting words like "bang" while running around in the school yard.

According to the complaint, A.G. yelled, "I have a bazooka and I'm going to shoot you."

The words were reported to the teacher by a student who stood nearby. Based on the report, A.G. and the three other students were removed from their classroom and taken to the school office where they were questioned about their conduct. Without notice to A.G.'s parents, he and his friends were suspended and sent home.

"Kids are going to be kids, and boys, especially, are going to play 'cops and robbers,'" said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute -- a nonprofit civil liberties organization representing A.G.'s parents, Scot and Cassandra Garrick.

President of the Rutherford Institute John Whitehead believes zero-tolerance policies punish good kids.

"They can't isolate the schools and make them into little monasteries," Whitehead continued. "Schools make a fundamental mistake when they fail to distinguish between appropriate discipline and punishment."

Many parents and education observers believe schools have gone too far in attempting to enforce so-called "zero-tolerance" policies.

While A.G.'s school district claims not to have an official, written zero-tolerance policy regarding violent behavior or threats, school officials' actions are consistent with those of many other districts with such policies.

Thirteen-year-old T.J. West was suspended for violating Kansas' Derby Unified School District's zero-tolerance policy against racial harassment and intimidation when he drew a replica of the confederate flag on a scrap of paper. The flag was listed as a prohibited symbol of racial hatred.

According to the Rutherford Institute, which represented West in a lawsuit against the school district, the teen-ager had no racial motivation for drawing the flag and did not show his work to anyone who was offended.

Following a trial, the court ruled that West's First Amendment rights were not abridged by the school's policy. The decision was affirmed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colo., and the Institute says it will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Another example of the policies' effects can be found in Florida where high school sophomore Tawana Dawson was suspended for possession of a nail clipper.

Dawson, a student with a good academic record and no disciplinary problems, had lent the clipper to a friend who used the two-inch file attachment to clean underneath her nails. A school officer deemed the attachment to be a "knife blade."

The girl's suspension was unanimously overturned by the Escambia County School Board. She was only allowed to return to school, however, on "strict probation," whereby she would automatically be expelled for further discipline problems.

After a meeting with Dawson's attorney, the board eventually agreed not to treat the girl any more harshly for minor offenses than it treats other students.

In yet another New Jersey case, a 9-year-old student was suspended from school for a day and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation after mentioning to a friend his intent to "shoot" a classmate with a wad of paper.

Fourth-grader Michael Hagood planned to launch spitballs at the girl using a rubber band.

Parents of a student at Upper Elementary School contacted the school district after hearing about the plan. District officials then notified local police and suspended Hagood under the school's zero-tolerance policy. The boy was required to complete a psychological evaluation before returning to class.

Local police went to the Hagood home after midnight and questioned Michael about the "shooting" incident.

"This whole zero-tolerance mentality is totally out of control," Whitehead told WorldNetDaily. "Schools should be more flexible and shouldn't treat children like they're robots."

The sweeping policies do not prevent "the real kids that are causing the problem" from wreaking havoc in schools, he added. "Innocent children are getting punished. At a certain point, it stops making sense."

Whitehead believes there are better ways for the schools to deal with suspicious activity.

"They should have handled it with the parents," he said, referring to the Garrick case. "There has to be another way other than suspension or expulsion."

"More parents who get involved in these situations are taking their kids out of public schools and putting them in private schools," he added.

In a written statement, Scot Garrick expressed his frustration with the way his son's case was handled: "It's upsetting to think about the way my son was treated by the school simply for playing, and it has had a big effect on him. He's censoring his playtime and his imagination. It's sad to see a 6-year-old censoring himself like that."

According to Whitehead, A.G. used to love going to school, but has lost much of his enthusiasm since the suspension.

An attorney affiliated with the Rutherford Institute filed a suit on behalf of the Garricks in the U.S. District Court for New Jersey last Thursday. The complaint names the Sayreville Board of Education, Superintendent William Bauer and Wilson School Principal Georgia Baumann as defendants.

The Garricks claim their son's First, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated as a result of the suspension and that the action resulted in the violation of a New Jersey law entitling him to a free and thorough public education. They are asking officials to expunge the boy's school record, removing mention of the suspension, and they also seek compensatory and punitive damages.

WorldNetDaily contacted Wilson Elementary School and was told officials have no comment on the matter. Repeated calls to the Sayreville School District's superintendent's office were not returned.

However, during an April 11 school board meeting, Board President Kevin Ciak said, "The district would not take the disciplinary actions it did with kindergarten students that were simply playing 'cops and robbers.' This was a much more serious matter."

He refused to elaborate at the time, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.