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Hitting the Reset Button on Zero Tolerance

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Just shoot me.

That was the ironic phrase that first popped into my head when I read of the recent seven-year-old in Maryland, suspended from school for saying "bang" after realizing that the Pop-Tart he was trying to nibble into a mountain, came to resemble a gun.

Just shoot me, as in "spare me another incident of zero-tolerance policies run amok," like the other recent example of a five-year-old suspended for talking about shooting her Hello Kitty soap bubble gun.

Just shoot me, because I can't comprehend intelligent, experienced adults replacing their natural common sense with false, and long-term harmful, punitive action, in the name of political correctness.

If you think these are isolated incidents, try Googling "zero tolerance in schools." You'll get over 38 million hits. Ninety-seven percent of our schools have zero tolerance for weapons and 88 percent for drugs, which includes over-the-counter drugs like aspirin or Tylenol, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education. The vast majority of punishments for any infraction, minor or major, are suspension or expulsion. No firm statistics are available for the number of students affected, but it's estimated to be in the thousands.

For any student, the stigma and shame of a school suspension can be emotionally life-altering; for older students, suspensions become part of their permanent record, adversely affecting their chances of acceptance to college.

Most principals would usually not choose to suspend a student for anything but egregious misconduct, or repeat bad behavior, instead opting for discipline more appropriate to that specific student or situation. But their hands are tied by the extreme limitations of zero tolerance imposed by their school boards, who themselves feel constrained by a litigious culture that demands expensive retribution for any perceived slight to another child's precious self-esteem.

We can all throw our hands up in the air or shrug our shoulders, and tsk, tsk the silliness of "other" people's narrow-minded lack of good judgment, or we can try to make it stop. Maryland State Senator J.B. Jennings recently introduced a bill, The Reasonable School Discipline Act of 2013, which calls for clearer disciplinary guidelines at specific grade levels for behavior that is not directly physically violent, such as nibbling a pastry into a gun, or talking about shooting bubbles from a Hello Kitty bubble gun. While the bill has some pronounced weaknesses that need to be amended, such as assigning schools the Herculean task of delineating and defining any and all types of infractions that might occur, its merit lies in its attempt at some return to flexibility and good judgment over blind adherence to ineffective rules.

The idea of actually having to legislate common sense is almost Kafka-esque in its absurdity, but this is what we've come to. When things in our world go out of whack we need to hit the reset button and sometimes, the only re-boot available when emotion replaces logic in public policy is legislation.

Of course, there is another recourse, at least when it comes to local education policy. You don't need to be an elected official to raise concerns, question the rules, or simply have your voice heard. Have you attended a school board meeting lately? The power of your participation may just surprise you.

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