On Tuesday, USA Today had two stories on its front page that spoke
volumes about the modern day concept of right and wrong. The bigger
headline screamed, “Clinton guilty of contempt.” The smaller headline
said, “Schools struggling to balance ‘zero tolerance,’ common sense.”
These headlines are a testament to the conflicting messages we are
sending our children.

Judge Susan Webber Wright has true grit. She affirmed to the American
people, what they already knew — President William Jefferson Clinton
LIED under oath. She did what the greatest deliberative body in the
world, the U.S. Senate, did not have the courage to do. The political
partisans, who did not want to admit the truth, kept changing the
standard as the day of reckoning came closer. The excuses for their
inaction were as unbelievable as Clinton’s excuses and explanations for
his actions. And as parents and grandparents we watched in horror as
actions or lies by the President of the United States were condoned or
explained away.

At the same time we are discovering that school boards,
administrators and teachers under guise of “making a safe environment
for the children” are adopting ludicrous and damaging zero tolerance
policies. Policies that Bill Clinton could not live up to. The USA Today
article leads with the
story of Lisa Smith, an honor student as Lakeview Middle School near
Dallas, TX. Lisa brought to school, along with several other students;
some soda mixed with a few drops of alcohol. As a result of the school’s
zero tolerance policy to drugs, alcohol, and violence, she is likely to
spend five months of her young life in a military style boot camp — a
punishment which surely does not fit the crime. Interestingly her lawyer
points out that under Texas law if she had been charged and found guilty
of the crime of possession of alcohol by a minor, the maximum sentence
would be a ticket and a fine; not incarceration in a boot camp.

But Lisa is hardly a solitary case. Only yesterday, April 14, 1999,
the Arizona Republic
reported the
case of David Silverstein, a 13 year old, who had been suspended from
school for bringing a “rocket” to school.

“David, a seventh-grader, was suspended Feb. 26, a day after a
routine locker inspection turned up his rocket, which consisted of a
potato-chip canister can, some airplane paint, paper and three strips of
adhesive bandage. Police called it an incendiary device, and the school
district classified it as a firearm, subject to the district’s
zero-tolerance policy on guns.” After an extraordinary 90-minute closed
door session the school board voted to allow David to return to school.
I wonder how many people at David’s school knew that NASA gives out
lesson plans to teachers for making rockets out of soda bottles?

In Louisiana a twelve-year-old honor student was treated as a
criminal — arrested in the schoolyard, handcuffed, taken to juvenile
hall, finger printed and not allowed to call his mother. What was his
crime? Hitting back a fellow student who had punched him first. It
appears that a zero tolerance policy towards any violence makes the
question of intent or motive irrelevant. Some schools take the attitude
if students are caught fighting all should be punished–it makes no
difference if you are the bully or the victim.

One of the most popular activities in the grade school classroom is
“Show and Tell.” Even this innocent activity resulted in an
eight-year-old student, Kameryan Lueng, being expelled and sent to
Redirection Academy. What terrible item did she bring to school? She
proudly brought in a family heirloom, her grandfather’s gold-plated
pocket watch with a tiny gold knife attached, not realizing that the
little knife would brand her a criminal.

Another knife case is so bizarre as to be mind-boggling. A young
girl, Sharon Coslet, was punished for bringing a knife in her lunch box.
Her mother put the knife into her lunch box so that Sharon could cut her
apple. When Sharon spotted the knife, she turned it in to the teacher
because Sharon was aware of the school’s policy toward knives. As a
result she was expelled. Her story made 20/20 and she was reinstated
while the Colorado legislature moderated the zero tolerance policy to
give administrators latitude.

This policy is pitting teachers and principals against their
students. Students who try to comply get the equivalent punishment as
those that willfully flaunt any policy. In Ohio a principal went to the
extreme of having an 8-year-old charged with assault after he had a
temper tantrum. The case was dismissed when the principal failed to show
up in court.

The genesis of this policy began with the passage of a federal law
mandating that state legislatures pass a zero tolerance law against guns
in school. The mandated punishment for breaking this law was a
one-year’s expulsion from school. Since the Congress made
education-funding contingent upon the passage of these state laws, all
50 states quickly complied. Then some teacher groups and others decided
that if this was good for keeping guns out of the schools, then why not
other weapons. Any form of violence soon followed and in some instances
even abusive speech became grounds for expulsion. Thus we have
situations where small children are being asked to be more mature than
their parents and their leaders.

Our leaders behave outrageously, while we are requiring our children
to behave angelically. We are trying to teach our children that violence
is not an appropriate solution, while the U.S. leads NATO in daily
bombings. We teach our children that certain objects are bad, rather
than teaching them that the intent to misuse those objects is wrong. And
when our children do not learn these lessons immediately and violate
these policies, they are treated atrociously by the very school system,
which proclaims its allegiance to a “safe environment.” Why is it that
we have 100% tolerance for liars, adulterers, and cheats in public life,
but zero tolerance for kids who are struggling to learn the difference
between right and wrong?

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