Zero-Tolerance: Popping the Bubble of Innocence in Schools
May 23, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Common sense flew out the window a long time ago, and a kindergarten student is suspended for playing with bubbles during recess. Citing zero-tolerance policies, Colorado school officials suspended a 5-year-old girl when she brought a clear plastic bubble gun to school.
A spokesman for School District 27J in Brighton, Colorado said:
This suspension is consistent with our district policy as well as how Southeast has handled similar situations throughout this school year.
[O]ther students at Southeast Elementary have brought items such as Nerf guns to school and also received one-day suspensions.
And, that’s exactly where zero-tolerance becomes dangerous. The school policy regarding weapons refers to both mandatory expulsion and discretionary discipline. Mandatory expulsion requires carrying, bringing, using or possessing a dangerous weapon on district property, among other places. Discretionary discipline, on the other hand, is utilized for carrying, using, actively displaying, or threatening with a firearm facsimile that could reasonably be mistaken for an actual firearm on school property.
Despite Colorado’s sweeping legislation in 2012 to eliminate zero-tolerance policies in schools, District 27J continues its zero-tolerance discipline, even when they don’t appear to understand the very terms of their policy. A clear plastic bubble-maker could never be reasonably mistaken for an actual firearm. This is exactly where the discretion in discretionary discipline should have come into play.
Even where the school wished to exercise its discretion to suspend the student, their own policy requires the suspension follow from a firearm facsimile, not a bubble-maker. And, not a Nerf gun. Given the not-quite-eliminated zero-tolerance mantra and the term firearm facsimile, the district, like many others, simply reverts to suspension; damn the facts, damn the discretion.
It is no coincidence that Colorado Revised Statutes 22-33-106 criminalizes the firearm facsimile in schools. Many school discipline actions reflect conduct found in criminal statutes. Certainly, a prosecutor would recognize the difference between a clear plastic bubble-maker and a firearm facsimile. Thus, it would be unlikely that a child would face delinquency for bringing this bubble-maker to school. So why then does the child face suspension? The district didn’t cite disruptive behavior, assault by bubble or any other legitimate cause for suspension. Instead, it stood on bringing a fake gun to school.
Speaking of the suspension, Nathan Woodliff, the executive director of the ACLU of Colorado, said:
It is counterproductive in a lot of different ways. When children are disciplined in ways that don’t make sense, they actually lose respect for the school they don’t gain respect.
The horrific tragedy of Columbine rocked our schools and communities. The noble goal of protecting our children took center stage. School districts across the country created stricter zero-tolerance policies. These policies, unfortunately, led to harsh punishments. How is a child who failed to recognize a bubble-maker as a firearm facsimile expected to understand her discipline? Hell, being kicked out of school for playing with bubbles eludes any rational person’s understanding.
Sadly, the zero-tolerance approach is a one-size fits all attitude that doesn’t account for common sense or circumstances. The examples are plentiful: children are disciplined for providing a life-saving inhaler to another student during an asthma attack, for defending themselves from assaults, for throwing a baby carrot, and even for sharing food with a hungry kid. And, yet we wonder why we have a school-to-prison pipeline.
Schools once handled discipline without expelling or suspending students. They don’t have to criminalize every bad or reckless decision a child makes. They can assign detention, cleaning the chalkboard afterschool, and other tasks meant to teach respect for the rules. (Ok, again, maybe they don’t even have chalkboards anymore.) But the point is kids will be kids. Kids will push the envelope. Kids will test boundaries. Kids will make careless or reckless decisions. After all, they are merely kids.
Innocent conduct, like bringing a fun new toy to school, should not result in capital school punishments. Discipline, perhaps. Expulsion and suspension, no. The punishment should fit the crime, and the punishment requires an objective look at the circumstances, not a one-size fits all approach. A 5-year-old kindergartner shouldn’t necessarily be punished the same as a 10-year-old fifth-grader. Yet, the zero-tolerance policy makes no distinction. There is no worse way to deal with the innocence of childhood.