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Over the Edge

Some say schools went too far in their zero-tolerance-for-weapons policies. In the wake of Virginia Tech, the issue gets a second hearing.


Third-grader Nicholas Heath almost always bought lunch at his elementary-school cafeteria in Prince William County — typical humdrum fare that included chicken tenders and corn dogs. But on Oct. 1, 2004, Heath brought his lunch from home for the first time. He couldn't have been more excited, his mother recalls, about the prospect of peanut butter and jelly.

At the lunch table, he smothered the jelly across the bread with a butter knife his mother had packed, but not before another student notified a teacher, who reported Heath's violation of school policy to school administrators. The punishment for packing a butter knife: 10 days of suspension for bringing a "weapon" onto school grounds.

The loss of classroom time for Heath, who has a learning disability, struck a blow to his science studies in particular, says his mother, Joy Heath: "They were studying about the waxing and waning of the moon, but we weren't able to keep him up with it all." She eventually met with school administrators at Acquinton Elementary School, who let Nicholas return after seven days and held on to the butter knife for a year.

In Virginia, the "butter knife" example has become a familiar for-instance in the long-simmering debate surrounding zero-tolerance safety policies at many public schools across the state and the country. In the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, many schools responded by ratcheting up controls on items banned from campus. But some say those policies have gone too far and question how effective they've been at preventing violence on school grounds. After the Virginia Tech shootings, the debate has become a focal point for administrators once again.

An official at Acquinton says the school hasn't revised its policy since the butter-knife incident.

In Hanover County Schools, there were 13 cases of students bringing a weapon to school in 2005-2006, spokeswoman Dale Theakston says. None was categorized as a firearm. They ranged from a fingernail file with a blade to a device that fired soft plastic pellets. Those students all received disciplinary suspensions ranging from 30 to 90 days, Theakston says.

Henrico County has a much larger school district. Last year it suspended 26 students for "weapons" violations. According to spokesman Mychael Dickerson, "Most of those are BB, pellet, look-alike or paintball guns and pocketknives; there was only one student expelled for bringing an actual gun in their backpack. They did not actually threaten anyone."

At Chesterfield County Schools, the zero-tolerance policy extends to toy guns, spokesman Tim Bolus says. But he says that if a kindergartener brings in a water-gun for show-and-tell, suspending the student won't do anyone much good.

Dewey Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia, says it's time for state lawmakers to take a second look. Policies that potentially dole out the same degree of punishment for a butter knife and a machete are not good for schools, he said at a Virginia State Bar training seminar at the Greater Richmond Convention Center earlier this month. Such policies punish students unnecessarily.

"Zero tolerance for guns and drugs is good," Cornell says, "but for paper clips and nail clippers, it goes overboard."

Advocates across the political spectrum oppose zero-tolerance policies, including the American Civil Liberties Union, The Rutherford Institute and the American Bar Association. They instead favor a more intense refocus on drugs and actual firearms.

Incidents range "from the ridiculous to the sublime," says John Whitehead, president of conservative think tank The Rutherford Institute. "Kindergarteners going 'bang bang' on the school yard. A child gargled Scope after eating her lunch." Most zero-tolerance policies address drug use and violence as well.

To Whitehead, the most egregious incident involved a student at Loudoun County's Blue Ridge Middle School who convinced a friend to give him the knife she was contemplating using to commit suicide. Whitehead says the school board called the boy's actions "admirable," and then suspended him for a semester for having a knife in his possession.

"Zero tolerance has to be tempered with common sense," says Bill Bosher, public policy professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and former Virginia superintendent of schools. He says such policies were developed "because of fairness. You want to make sure that whether you were the captain of an athletic team or about to drop out, you got the same treatment."

There's value in sending a message so students understand "if you do this, then there aren't going to be any mitigating circumstances," Bosher says. The hope was to craft a policy that would "be preventive, and I think it is," he says. "Probably the biggest challenge to zero tolerance is the ability of public bodies to apply the common-sense provision as well." They're not perfectly applied, but Bosher is clear, saying he would not want to be on the side of "bashing policies that send a clear message to students."

But the local application of zero-tolerance policies can yield unintended consequences. A memo prepared by the Virginia Board of Education in November 2005 notes the unpopularity of the policies and cited research that finds punishments falling heavily on minority and special-education students. It also raises concerns about what alternative educational settings are available to students not allowed back in school.

The Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers, has no official policy, VEA President Princess Moss says, "but we realize that it causes concerns in our communities." As an alternative, she suggests a panel with a teacher, an administrator and a parent to address those incidents, "because sometimes things get pulled into the zero-tolerance policy when it is truly a mistake." She references the butter-knife incident.

Federal law requires schools to expel students for a year if they carry a gun to school, but U.Va.'s Cornell says that Virginia's zero-tolerance policies reach far beyond that requirement. Schools across the country started implementing zero-tolerance policies after the federal government passed the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994, but after the school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Cornell says, "zero tolerance went on steroids."

Although federal law specifically says that toy guns aren't among the prohibited items, Virginia law says carrying paintball, pellet and BB guns are expellable offenses. Ultimately, Virginia law allows individual school boards to go even further if they see fit.

According to Cornell, less than a third of the "firearm" expulsions in Virginia were for what we think of as traditional guns with bullets, and Virginia hovers at the top of the list among all states for total expulsions of students caught carrying "weapons."

In 2002, then-Richmond Delegate Brad Marrs proposed legislation that would curtail Virginia's zero-tolerance policies, and he brought Nicholas Heath and his mother Joy to testify before a House of Delegates committee hearing in 2004.

"I really thought it was just something that was being overlooked," Marrs says, "and when we brought it to people's attention, they would jump at the chance" to fix it. He introduced bills every year until he lost his seat in 2005. All were opposed by the education community and none passed, but they did prompt the state Department of Education to study zero-tolerance polices in 2005.

"We're not supposed to punish people for things that are not wrong," Marrs says. "Opening your lunch box and finding a butter knife your mom gave you so you can spread peanut butter on a cracker — that's not wrong. That's bureaucratic madness."

As for the Heaths, Joy says she's more involved in the school and works as a room mom to keep close to Nicholas. And she just got the butter knife back. S

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