Zero tolerance=zero common sense?

News reports come in with alarming frequency.

Four kindergartners are playing cops and robbers when one of them says, "I have a bazooka, and I'm going to shoot you." All four are suspended for three days.

Third-grader Hamadi Alston, also playing cops and robbers, uses an L-shaped piece of paper as his weapon. He's arrested by police and held for four hours.

In September 2002, some sixth-grade boys point their fingers at each other in the cafeteria line and pretend to shoot. One of the students is ordered to serve five days in-school suspension.

In the past month, the Albemarle-based Rutherford Institute has filed suits or appeals on behalf of these students punished by their schools' zero-tolerance policies.

"The problem is huge," says John Whitehead, Rutherford's president. School systems have broad policies about what constitutes a threat. "Then you have children doing kid things. The next thing you know, they're with the police."

The Rutherford Institute started taking zero-tolerance cases in the mid-1990s. "Post-Columbine, they went crazy," says Whitehead. "It's a national phenomena: the lockdown mentality."

While the cases described above occurred in New Jersey and Oklahoma, a list of 31 cases the civil liberties group has handled shows that Virginia isn't immune from zero-tolerance excess.

Loudoun County has been the target of two lawsuits brought by the Rutherford Institute, including the first in the state when fourth-grader Brandon MacLean was suspended two days and recommended for expulsion for bringing a "nerf-like gun" to his elementary school.

Eighth-grader Benjamin Ratner was trying to protect a suicidal friend by taking away the knife she'd brought to school and putting it in his locker for safekeeping. While Loudoun officials said Ratner's actions were "admirable" and posed no threat to others, he was nevertheless suspended.

Even closer to home, a Louisa County seventh grader was suspended because the A-student wrote a song with graphically violent references, even though her teachers didn't believe she was a threat to anyone.

Charlottesville City Schools do not have a zero-tolerance policy, according to director of instruction W.T. Lewis. "We take each case on its own merits individually," he says.

The city school board has discussed a zero-tolerance policy several times, says Lewis, but board members and administrators are not interested.

"Sometimes it's taken to extremes, like the kindergartner who kissed a girl and was charged with sexual harassment or some foolishness like that," says Lewis. "I'd be embarrassed."

However, he says that city school officials are very stringent when someone violates state laws and school board policy. He cites a couple of incidents last year where students were suspended for brandishing pellet guns even though the incidents didn't occur on school property. Because of the danger of a child using a weapon, "The school has jurisdiction regardless of where the felony was committed," explains Lewis.

No real guns have been found on school property in Charlottesville since a student brought a gun onto a bus three years ago.

Would city schools suspend kids for pointing fingers at each other and pretending to shoot?

"We'd have to see what the history of the student is," says Lewis, "whether there's animosity or whether they're friends."

He adds: "We caution them about making threats and how they can be perceived."

Albemarle County Schools have zero tolerance, but superintendent Kevin Castner says, "We try to use a degree of common sense."

For example, while there's a zero-tolerance policy for knives, administrators won't go to the school board and ask for expulsion unless the knife is over four inches long and was used threateningly, says Castner.

Believability is another factor in deciding whether to boot kids from school, and a kindergartner bringing in a water blaster would not, according to Castner, be perceived as a threat.

Castner hesitates to comment on other school systems, but in the case of kindergartners playing cops and robbers, he says, "I'd question the believability" of the threat of violence.

Last year, Albemarle County had 30 expulsion hearings, but Castner believes that "fewer than five" involved weapons. He says that deputy county attorney Mark Trank keeps track of the exact number, but Trank did not return repeated phone calls from The Hook.

Castner doesn't recall any weapons brought to school that were functional or used in a threatening manner. However, in 1998, one student who had a shotgun in his car that administrators agree was for hunting, was suspended for the rest of the school year.

The American Federation of Teachers supports zero tolerance policies toward bringing lethal weapons and illegal drugs to school, and violent assault. "Certain offenses are nonnegotiable," says spokeswoman Celia Lose.

But even the AFT admits there's been a lot of zealous misuse in how zero tolerance is applied. "Zero tolerance shouldn't mean zero common sense," says Lose. "Pretending a stick is a gun or pointing a finger and saying, 'bang, you're dead' may not be appropriate, but it doesn't warrant the student being tossed out of school." Instead, the AFT recommends a range of sanctions for behavior a school system deems inappropriate.

Whitehead calls zero tolerance "a really bad situation that's hurting a lot of people." The cases are difficult to win in court where "conservative judges support authority and the schools."

He decries the fact that a kid who points a finger as a pretend gun is treated the same as one who brings a weapon into school. Meanwhile, Columbine aside, Whitehead says violence in schools has dropped since the early '90s. At the same time, "Test scores are not going up and knowledge of the Bill of Rights is dropping.

"What would Thomas Jefferson think of how zero tolerance is creating an uneducated citizenry with a fear of authority?" wonders Whitehead.

And don't get him going on other examples of zero tolerance on drugs. For instance, 20 states have expelled kids for having such legal substances as Alka-Seltzer, Midol, or Tylenol.

"It makes absolutely no sense," he laments.

The ATF agrees. "We don't think you need to throw the book at students who bring Midol to school," says Lose.