Zero-tolerance policy abuse cuts like a knife – and slashes young lives

As student behavior in our schools went from bad to worse, somebody tossed out the term "zero tolerance." School administrators struggling to stay afloat in troubled waters embraced the idea with the enthusiasm of shipwreck survivors scrambling onto a life raft. Michigan legislators quickly climbed aboard.

Zero tolerance wouldn't just spare school officials the burden of having to make tough calls, it would actually forbid such discretion. It would ban them from using their judgement to navigate the murky depths of juvenile discipline.

Intent? Mitigating circumstances? The history of the accused? None of it would matter. Relieved of their rightful role as educators and adults to assign punishment appropriate to the crime, administrators sailing under the flag of zero tolerance could say, "We're sorry, but we had no choice in the matter; it's out of hands."

Zero tolerance equals zero judgment equals zero responsibility.

Take the recent case of Atiya Haynes, a senior at Annapolis High School in Dearborn Heights. Last month school officials who thought Haynes was smoking marijuana in the girls' room searched the purse of the 17-year-old honor student. They didn't find any pot, but did find a small pocketknife her grandfather had given her. It had a 3 1/4-inch blade.

As it turned out, Haynes wasn't smoking pot; nonetheless, the knife in her purse got her suspended for the rest of her senior year because of the district's policy toward possessions of "weapons" on school property. Now, keep in mind that Haynes never removed the so-called "weapon" from her purse and, in fact, never touched it. She begged school officials to let her finish the rest of her senior year. In a letter to the school board, she wrote:

"I did not have bad intentions; I’m a dedicated student, in advanced placement courses, dual-enrolled, I work two jobs and have aspirations beyond oratory expression. I just don’t want my efforts thus far to be cut short or even be terminal for such an incident like this. I understand the seriousness of the situation, but I just don’t want it to be my ultimate determining factor."

Nonetheless the board upheld the suspension. Haynes was allowed, however, to take online classes and will graduate with her classmates next year.

As a columnist for the Lansing State Journal, I wrote about Jeremy Hix, a 17-year-old Holt High School student. Honoring his Scottish heritage, Hix dressed for his senior prom in authentic bagpiper's regalia, which included a skandubh, a knife with a 3-inch blade.

Consistent with Scottish tradition, Hix carried the knife in a sheath tucked into his sock. He never took the knife from its sheath, but a chaperone at the prom spotted it and reported HIx for possessing a weapon.

Hix faced expulsion. His family hired a lawyer who managed to talk the school board down to a semester-long suspension.

The madness began reasonably enough with the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandates that students who bring guns to school be expelled for at least a year. Michigan upped the ante with legislation in 1995 that insists on permanent expulsion for students who bring "dangerous weapons" to school.

So what's a dangerous weapon? It could be the scissors in a teacher's desk drawer, or the glass vase on the school secretary's desk, or the bats in the baseball team's equipment locker. Was there potential danger in Haynes' pocket knife and Hix's skandubh? Theoretically, yes. But clearly the two students in question had no intention of doing any harm.

They are by no mean the most blatant cases of zero-tolerance insanity. In a story earlier this year a Bridge reporter wrote, among other cases, about a Michigan eighth-grader suspended for 180 days because he had an Airsoft gun, which shoots plastic pellets, and a Detroit high school sophomore suspended for carrying an eyebrow-shaping tool that contained a razor-like blade.

Responding to questions about the Atiya Haynes case, Todd Thieken, superintendent of Dearborn Heights District 7 Schools, told reporters that those who found fault with Haynes' suspension should blame the state Legislature. But it seems to me that the true blame lies elsewhere – with those who are unable, or unwilling, to draw a distinction between a pocket knife in a purse and a dangerous weapon.

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John Q. Public
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 6:51pm
It's going to get worse. Although Democratic politicos seem to represent the voice of sanity, their voters seem to have lost hope and just vote "not present" on Election Day. "Responding to questions about the Atiya Haynes case, Todd Thieken, superintendent of Dearborn Heights District 7 Schools, told reporters that those who found fault with Haynes’ suspension should blame the state Legislature. But it seems to me that the true blame lies elsewhere – with those who are unable, or unwilling, to draw a distinction between a pocket knife in a purse and a dangerous weapon." The blame doesn't lie elsewhere. Those who are unwilling and unable to draw those distinctions reside in the legislature. They are, for the most part, Republicans, and the majority of the people who show up to cast ballots affirm their cowardice and stupidity biennially.
Sat, 11/08/2014 - 1:40am
I don’t support 'zero tolerance' for them many of the reasons. However, I think the way examples were presented, like campaign ads, to create an emotional reaction and not a constructive one. The idea that simply saying there was no intention is supposed to be justification for carrying what has been identified as a 'dangerous' weapon. I wonder how many times those who have been caught carrying a gun to school had claimed they didn't 'intent' to use it. I wonder if there were any of those who shot someone said they didn't 'intend' to hurt them. Good intentions are valid until the moment they are no longer valid. Simply not planning to do something and then doing it doesn’t change the results. ------- Since Mr. Schneider doesn't mention it, I wonder if in his examples the people were aware that carrying a knife was not allowed. I wonder if knowing it why they would carried the knife. Mr. Schneider makes a point of the knives being three inches long. I wonder if he somehow thinks that that makes them less 'dangerous.' I believe that the two kids in his example, would not hurt anyone, but I don't know how to be sure of that. How would a teacher look at one student with a knife and say I trust you not to hurt others and look at another and say I don't trust you. In my community we have had teenagers in the past year that have injured and even killed others and it doesn't seem anyone could tell if and when they would do that by simply looking at them. ----- It is one thing to condemn something you don't like, but if you fail to offer alternatives or a means to develop a better approach then all that is being achieved is to undermine the authority of those trying to do better. Mr. Schneider may want to blame someone, or bash the legislature, however, if he sees 'intent' as such an important factor then why doesn't he acknowledge the 'intent' of the legislature in creating the law. I would offer that there are many schools and faculty that have never experienced classroom violence, so they would benefit from having support and guidance in how to address it. I believe there are better approaches, but until those are explored I will not condemn those who have at least made an effort to prevent violent acts against students. I wonder if Mr. Schneider considered the choices made before the instants of discipline. I believe how those choices were made should be better understood. I think it is about thinking and weighting the 'cost-benefit'. Why did the one student carry the knife and why did the other student wear the knife? Did they consider the risk associated with having a knife? It isn't as simple as Mr. Schneider presents it, there are risks associated with 'dangerous' items. I wonder how deep a knife would have to penetrate to reach a vital organ like a kidney. It is disappointing Mr. Schneider wasn’t a bit more concerned and asked readers what their ideas might be on preventing student violence with particular attention to 'dangerous' items such as knives. I believe with a careful approach the readers could develop a more effective approach that 'zero tolerance.'
John Q. Public
Sat, 11/08/2014 - 11:24am
"The idea that simply saying there was no intention is supposed to be justification for carrying what has been identified as a ‘dangerous’ weapon." No, it is't. Nor, however, is the simple act of possession supposed to justify application of the same penalty doled out to someone committed, openly or covertly, to acts of mayhem. Michigan residents seem to love action (as opposed to inaction) by the legislature. "Well, at least they did something!" is the tired mantra of the electorate. "Doing nothing is not an option!" is practically the official slogan of legislators.The corollary to that philosophy is, "If we don't have any bright ideas, let's implement some stupid ones!" The fact that one does not necessarily have a solution to a problem is not a reason to jump on the bandwagon of politically expedient knee-jerk stupidity. I absolutely reject your notion (which to me encapsulates what I just described) that "(You) believe there are better approaches, but until those are explored (you) will not condemn those who have at least made an effort to prevent violent acts against students." Stupidity deserves condemnation, not neutrality. Your call for readers to develop more effective approaches is a non-starter. The initiatives by voters to stymie legislative stupidity have been circumvented multiple times by court-approved legislative abuses of the constitutional prohibition of the overturn of appropriations bills via citizen initiative. One reason term limits are still so popular is that they are a way to limit the stupidity of at least individual incumbents whom the electorate absolutely refuse to get rid of for incompetence and/or unethical acts. "We already have term limits; they're called 'elections'." assumes the existence of an informed, engaged electorate demanding of intelligent and ethical behavior. When we show evidence of that, I'll climb on board the term-limit-repeal train. Doing nothing IS an option, and as the results have shown, one that likely would have been far superior to the implementation of 'zero tolerance'.
Sat, 11/08/2014 - 12:18pm
I will remind you that I don't support 'zero tolerance' or similar such controlling legislation. I wonder why you show no interest in why those to students felt the need to carry the knives and didn't consider the risks/consequences. You seem to see only the rule and have no interest in adddressing why it was created, that assures it will not be replaced for you reasoning about wanting action. As for our wanting action, we are a society based in action, whether it is in providing for basic needs or for wants, it takes action. Though I do not support 'do something, right or wrong do something.' Similarly to the 'zero tolerance' if you don't create a means for thoughtful action you will get emotional action. Just like Mr. Power you show no willingness to ask the question about how do we get thoughtful action and then try that approach. You claim the voters are being circumvent and yet in my community the voters have made no effort to develop an alternative to 'zero tolerance' they trust to the educators to address it. If you want change then we need to develop an approach that is not distracted by emotions/frustrations/issues baggage. We need and open and focused approach to understand the issue/problem, to engage a diverse group, to colloborate, to foster a competiton of ideas and a confrontation on ideas. listen to others ideas. I do agree with you on the term limits, and the opposition to it is a good example of how people only hear what they want to hear. I would like to see an inclusiong in the laws that authorize and support prgrams, agencies, and spending include a purpose/expect results and a program/spending accountablity for achieving the expect results to support success and change failure. I agree that in action is an option. The best way to prevent in action is develop the means to create better alternatives. Would you be willing to participate in an open discussion of developing an alternative to 'zero tolerance' here on Bridge? I realize that Bridge has no interest in having that happen, but I offer it as a place where ideas could be cristalized and grown, where people could look beyond the emotions and better understand the causes, where diverse perspective could coalese around ideas. As an example, in place of 'zero tolerance' I would like to see included in the roles and responsibilities of educators a secure place of education and a list of elements that each organization would have to address, not command and control requirments, rather a list of issues to be addressed locally and managed locally. It would be more about sharing knowledge and skills not trying to control actions. With a few more people willing to invest this much thought and energy on the problem that percipitated 'zero tolerance' there could be some effective alternatives that even the legislator/regulators/courts would find as acceptable equivalence.
John Q. Public
Sat, 11/08/2014 - 6:59pm
'Would you be willing to participate in an open discussion of developing an alternative to ‘zero tolerance’ here on Bridge?' No. That's just an exercise in windmill-tilting. The real enemy is the legislature which creates the stupidity we have to live with, and my efforts are uniquely focused on diminishing its power.
Sun, 11/09/2014 - 1:55am
John, The reality I have learned is unless you have an alternative to what you are trying to change you go unarmed into the battle. Legislators are no smarter then the rest of us and most likely have had a more sheltered professional life so they are not any more insightful then the voters. If you want to influence legislators you must have something they can take hold of and promote for the desired change. Legislators are like most of us, we need to have some idea/vision of what will change and how that change will be achieved. I doubt that few if any of our legislators have worked in an environment where change was the culture and each person was always striving for change. What better place to create the ideas for change, the means of change, the outcome of change that can be presented to replace 'zero tolerance' then here in public view? My view is to leverage the 'power' of the legislature not to do battle with.
John Q. Public
Sun, 11/09/2014 - 11:14am
"My view is to leverage the ‘power’ of the legislature not to do battle with." Fair enough; that's not mine.
Sat, 11/08/2014 - 8:27am
Some years ago I sat on a school board for a Northern Michigan school district. A teacher walking through the parking lot spotted a paring knife in the bed of a student's pickup truck. At the expulsion hearing the student claimed he had recently helped his grandmother harvest some garden vegetables and inadvertently left the knife in his truck. Some of the school board member were ready to throw this kid away. I believed him was able to convince most of the board it was an honest mistake.
Sat, 11/08/2014 - 10:21am
Its a bit ridiculous, a pen or pencil in someones pocket could be considered a weapon as well but they are not a "knife" so that gets a pass. Its over reaction hysteria to Columbine and other incidents.
Sat, 11/08/2014 - 12:33pm
***, What could be and what will be a weapon can be far apart. In my coummity we recently had two murders by stabbing. I have never heard of (outside the movies) murder by ballpoint pen. The vast majority of us have been conditioned since we could walk that a knive can and does inflict injuries, when have we ever been taught that a pen or pencil can cause the same degree of injury. We have learned that it is easy to inflict a seriour injury with a knive. A knife is designed to cut with minimal effort, a pen would take much more effort and is not likely to inflict the same injury. Simply because something is possible doesn't make it equivalent to something that is design for that purpose. It is possible for me to jump out of an airplane, I can assure you it will never happen (I will ride that plane all the way to where ever it is going). As for it being an over reaction to Columbine. I am sad to say in our community (not Detroit, not Flint, no Grand Rapids, or Lansing) we had a recent shooting at a local football game and in the past year we have had one high school girl stab another in the cafeteria during school hours. Violence is a reality our educators have to deal with.
Sat, 11/08/2014 - 5:52pm
"Violence is a reality our educators have to deal with." It's not a reality to the degree that they make it out to be.
Sun, 11/09/2014 - 2:02am
***, It is enough of a precieved reality that we have such a thing as 'zero tolerance' and unless we're willing to accept that and develop ways to better address the preceptions/emotions nothing will change. I see value in change. I am a strong proponent of having people think things through. 'zero tolerance' a barrier to thinking, it discourages, it even discourages thinking. What value can we expect from our schools if the educators are thinking? How can we expect our students to learn to think when the educators aren't thinking?
Chuck Fellows
Sun, 11/09/2014 - 8:00am
Stupid policy yes. The product of using adult intellect to reach a resolution. Key to many of the difficulties education faces today. Suggest we adults stop talking (or writing) and listen to the kids. Hear what they have to say and what they recommend doing about the so called "problems" the adults come up with. In addition, listen to what they perceive as problems and try to use our experience with reason and common sense to guide, coach amd mentor the kids on THEIR learning journey. Let them be responsible for THEIR own learning! I have seen the enemy and they are us. We need to get rid of some really dumb paradigms about education. It's not about education, (it's about learning). Adults know what's best for children.(achieving a certain skill level by a certain chronological age - defies biological reality) Age grading is appropriate. (Biology doesn't care about your clock) Silos of academic disciplines are the only way to present information. (Interdependence is the rule of nature) Transportation efficiency is paramount. (Our schedules are not the kids schedules) Evidence of learning is sitting still and being quiet. (Compliance and conformance is not learning, it's cognitive death) Doing things the right way ( instead of doing the right things) Accountability through objective measures (Ghost of Pythagorus) . . . and all the other assumptions we accept without question. (Plato's Allegory)
Sun, 11/09/2014 - 3:16pm
Chuck, I agree with so much of what you are saying and it starts with learning. And there is much we can learn from the children, but I think the elements of successful learning are true for all students, for all of us who are trying to learn. I would like there to be a place and discipline means for discussing each item you mention. Much of what you say is true but there is also more to them that maybe different from you experience and those of others. One of the failings of the 'educators' talking about education with other 'educators' is that the keep narrowing their perspective and what is accepted as 'conventional' wisdom. Along with your view, I recall long ago reading an article where academic researchers talked describe how they worked with young students to better understand how they learned. And yet, whenever there is an article or comments about our education system today we never hear an mention of asking and listening to the students. It is disappointing that a place like Bridge doesn't periodically offer an opportunity for readers to have a conversation about such issues/problems as learning. I think we could all learn alot by listening to other people's perspectives and ideas.
Gwen Young
Sun, 11/09/2014 - 8:33am
This needs to go back to the individual school districts to make decisions. Nobody's life needs to get ruined.