March 5, 2005 - Houston Chronicle Outlook Section
Alas, zero tolerance policy uses zero common sense
State regs for schools just criminalize, alienate children
By FRED HINK
A 15-year-old girl decided to die. She took three bottles of prescription medication and proceeded to school. Later that day, her mother received a phone call from a school administrator causing her to rush to the emergency room not knowing whether her daughter was dead or alive.
Upon entering the hospital, the mother was met, not by a doctor, but by a school administrator. There were no condolences, just an administrator informing the mother that, because of school policy, her daughter would be suspended and then remanded to the district's disciplinary alternative school for a mandatory 60 days. She served her suspension in a hospital bed.
A 15-year-old boy, goofing around with a friend at a lunch table, uttered a curse word. A district policeman overhead the word, asked those around the table if the word had offended them and when one student raised his hand, the boy was issued a Class C misdemeanor for disorderly conduct and received three days of in-school suspension.
The Safe Schools Act of 1995 introduced a new lexicon to Texas political landscape: zero tolerance. Zero tolerance of weapons or drugs on campuses is necessary for safe schools. Zero tolerance of children is insane.
The year 1999 brought us the terrible tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado. The result: School officials began to look at zero tolerance laws differently.
Superintendents around the state decided that a similar incident was not going to happen on their watch. The result has been catastrophic.
Alienation from peers and authority figures caused the demonic actions of the two children in Columbine. When the current system overly punishes children, whether guilty or not, they are being alienated from their peers and teachers. How, then, does zero tolerance protect our children?
My group, Katy Zero Tolerance (now Texas Zero Tolerance), supports restoring sanity to a system that is creating criminals and not protecting children. Formed by parents in the Katy Independent School District to promote a common sense approach in dealing with non-threatening discipline problems, our organization now believes that the Texas Legislature must mandate common sense. Most superintendents claim their hands are tied by legislation so reform is needed so it can become legal to practice common sense.
Earlier this year, a sixth grader walked into an art class and accidentally discharged his father's gun. Fortunately, the boy was only slightly injured and no other child was hurt.
How did zero tolerance help in this instance? It did not. If malicious intent were the intention, how many of our children would be dead before the gun was out of ammunition?
Arresting a child who accidentally left a fishing knife in his pickup does not mean another Columbine was averted. It means that a child, who by nature and definition is forgetful and just plain dumb at times, was caught being a child.
Pure and simple: The current application of zero tolerance is throwing the baby out with the bath water.
There are several legislative initiatives that will help with this problem, among them Texas Senate Bill 126 and Texas House Bills 442 and 461. We urge immediate passage. We also ask that legislation be written and enacted to ensure zero tolerance is not abused.
Immediate parental notification before a child is interrogated is a must; parents have a fundamental right to have input in the disciplining of their children. Additionally, an impartial appeals process, free from superintendents' influences, must be mandatory upon a parent's request.
State Sen. Florence Shapiro dedicated the 79th session of the Legislature to Texas' children. Fixing the Safe Schools Act is the best thing we can do to safeguard our children.
Hink, past president of Katy Zero Tolerance and current Founder and Executive Director of Texas Zero Tolerance, can be contacted through the group's Web site, www.TexasZeroTolerance.com.