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February 23, 2013

'Zero tolerance' can lead to absurdity

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The Daily Star

---- — Zero-tolerance policies are again taking center stage in the theater of the absurd. 

By now you have heard some of the stories from the front lines of the hyper-vigilant, post-Newtown world in which we live:

The kindergarten student suspended for making a “terroristic threat” — with a Hello Kitty bubble gun. 

The 5-year-old threatened with disciplinary action for pointing  a “gun” made of building blocks at his classmates. 

The kids called onto the carpet for playing cops and robbers. 

All in the name of “zero tolerance.”

Most of the zero-tolerance policies on school books today were spawned by a 1994 federal law that set a minimum penalty of expulsion for any student who brought a firearm onto school property. Somehow, in the intervening years, “zero tolerance” has grown to mean that even the mere mention or suggestion of a firearm can subject a student, however young or innocent, to severe disciplinary action. 

Proponents of zero-tolerance policies argue that they send the message to students that school is a safe environment, and that weapons and threats are to be taken seriously. 

But surely there is room, even in a “zero tolerance” policy, for common sense. 

For one thing, for a threat to have any real meaning, it has to be grounded in reality. The parents of the little girl with her bubble gun fought back, and eventually got the incident recategorized as a “threat to harm others.” But what harm would have been done if the girl had carried out her threat and, horror of horrors, shot bubbles at her classmates?

There is a darker side to making something so taboo that even speaking of it can land you in hot water. For some young children, making guns and gun play forbidden fruit is likely to make firearms more tantalizing and exciting to them. Is that really the messages we want to send? 

Finally, telling children what type of make-believe play is acceptable and what isn’t (i.e., banning games such as “cops and robbers”) is a disturbing concept. Play is a critical aspect of child development; it is through pretend play that young children order the world around them and learn social skills. Through make-believe play, children can try out roles and ideas that might otherwise be off-limits — an important way for them to learn and grow. 

We’re not saying threats should not be taken seriously, or that there should have been no response at all to these incidents. Certainly any time one child threatens another, there is an opportunity for adults to step in and talk about why that’s not OK.

But treating a bubble gun as if it were a real gun? That’s the sort of thing for which we should have zero tolerance.