Examiner Local Editorial: Common sense trumps 'zero tolerance'

Opinion,Education,Local Editorial

Lawmakers were quick to begin their legislative overreaction to the shooting in Newtown, Conn.: the calls for gun control measures that would have done nothing to avert the tragic shooting (including the fingerprinting of all gun buyers) and lockdown-style school safety measures that would make grade schools resemble prisons.

But it isn't just lawmakers who have abandoned sober thinking for abject panic. School officials at Roscoe R. Nix Elementary in Montgomery County suspended a 6-year-old student for something nearly everyone does as a child. He formed his thumb and finger into an L-shape resembling a gun, pointed it at another student and said, "Pow!" This kid needed a talking-to, and perhaps a note home to his parents. Suspension was totally uncalled for.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed in this case. As The Washington Examiner reported Sunday, Principal Annette Ffolkes has informed the child's parents that they will be rescinding his suspension and expunging it from his record. We can only add that we hope no trace of the incident remains, because perfectly normal childlike behavior should not mar a student or cause him to be singled out for life as a troublemaker. The school administrator who originally informed his parents that he had "threatened to shoot another student" should really use words more carefully.

The main question to consider is how we got to this point. On the one hand, teachers are frequently unable to impose classroom discipline because public school systems are loath to suspend or expel even the worst troublemakers. On the other hand, suspensions are handed out for trivial behavior like the incident noted above. Another classic case came last year, when Maryland's state board had to reverse two suspensions in Talbot County for possession of "deadly weapons" -- a penknife and a lighter, which school officials called an "explosive device." Both items were in fact used to maintain the strings on the students' lacrosse sticks. The suspensions, though lifted, interfered with the students' college applications.

Such "zero tolerance" approaches to school discipline have been badly and rightly tarnished. Zero tolerance tends to harm the near-innocent as much as it punishes the guilty. Perhaps more importantly, it has created an even stronger disrespect and contempt for school authority. When fully grown school officials behave so foolishly, it undermines their authority in the sight of the children they are trying to educate. The solution, which most educators already apply, is common sense.

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