By MAUREEN DOWNEY
Two weeks ago, a man entered my son’s high school carrying a knife.
It was my husband.
He was also carrying a pound of brie cheese and two boxes of crackers, all for my son’s French class presentation on the foods of France. At the hand-off in the high school lobby, my son noticed the small paring knife and reacted as if his father were passing him a live grenade or a kilo of cocaine.
“I can’t believe you sent dad with a knife,” my son told me later. “Don’t you know that you can’t bring any kind of knives to school?”
In my defense, I did know that high schools have zero tolerance for weapons. But I didn’t think the class would want to tackle a wedge of cheese with a ruler, so I sent the smallest knife I had. Not small enough, though.
Chastened, no knife accompanied the cake I sent to school with my fourth-graders a few days later for the monthly teachers’ birthday celebration. I’m not sure if the teachers used their hands to tear off chunks, or if the principal keeps a private stash of sharp implements.
I understand the need to maintain safety and discourage kids from bringing weapons to school. Deadly school shootings have made all of us more concerned about safety. Today, 91 percent of schools have zero-tolerance policies for weapons and 88 percent for drugs, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey.
I also grasp the benefit of putting all students on notice and then imposing the same stiff penalties on all violators, regardless of circumstances. It eliminates the claim that some students get off lightly while others are treated more harshly.
But it also eliminates common sense and discretion, and can make school officials appear inane.
In Colorado, Cherry Creek school officials are taking a public lashing for the 10-day suspension of the commander of a Young Marines drill team in February for having the team’s prop rifles in her car. The high school senior was preparing for a competition at the Air Force Academy and had the prop guns in her car for her thrice-weekly practices.
Similar situations have occurred in Florida. In 2007, a 10-year-old girl in Ocala faced a felony weapons charge because her lunch box contained a small knife to cut meat. Four years ago, an 11-year-old Hernando County girl was arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail for bringing a plastic butter knife to school. At the same school, a 15-year-old boy spent three weeks under house arrest for throwing a pencil that hit a custodian on the shoulder.
Reacting to such cases, the Florida Legislature is looking at a law that would restore some common sense to zero-tolerance policies. In proposing Senate Bill 1540, Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville) says he wants fewer kids funneled into the criminal justice system because they run afoul of Florida’s stringent zero-tolerance law.
Under his bill, school officials rather than local police would deal with nonviolent misdemeanors so children wouldn’t end up with criminal records.
Georgia has its own well-publicized examples of zero tolerance gone awry. In 2000, an 11-year-old Cobb student was slapped with a two-week suspension for bringing a Tweety Bird wallet on a 10-inch key chain to school. The district insisted that policy forced it to treat the novelty key chain as it would treat pellet guns, swords and brass knuckles. After a deluge of national media attention, none of it positive, Cobb reversed its ruling, lifted the suspension and cleared the girl’s disciplinary record.
That same year, a Savannah high school suspended an Eagle Scout for having an ax and pocketknife in his car. The honors student had locked the ax in his trunk after using it for an off-campus scouting demonstration of proper handling. In addition to finishing the semester at an alternative school, the student lost his driver’s license for 90 days under a law that revokes the driving privileges of minors found with weapons at school.
Given the possible consequences, the next time I send cheese to school, it probably ought to be Cheese Whiz.