Just when I think there can’t be even more outrageous examples of Zero Tolerance — in schools or in real life — I come across more that I just can’t resist telling you about. But there is hope, which I’ll get to in a minute. First, one of the ZT stories from this week’s (25 February 2007) issue to illustrate:
Zero Tolerance, Zero Thought
Casey Harmeier, 10, a student at Beckendorf Intermediate School in Tomball, Texas, responded to a “dare” by another student to open the cover on a fire alarm pull switch. Everyone agrees that he didn’t intend to actually pull the alarm — and he didn’t. But opening the cover set off a horn designed to scare children against pulling the alarm, and when that went off an adult rushed over to silence it — and accidentally pulled the fire alarm. Principal Dolores Guidry called police, who hauled the boy away without notifying his parents. He was charged with setting a false alarm — a felony. When it became clear what really happened, the principal told prosecutors they were overreacting. The district’s assistant superintendent also asked that charges be dismissed. But prosecutors refuse, instead thinking that reducing it to a misdemeanor is sufficient. (Houston Chronicle) …In their quest to save face, prosecutors are willing to sacrifice a child. How proud their ethics professors must be.
The last time I did an essay on ZT I noted a couple of students sued their schools over the matter. One won $90,000 from the school, and $80,000 from the school’s armed ZT enforcement division — the local police department.
In the other case, a judge ordered the school to reinstate the student. I editorialized that such lawsuits will certainly be the way to end ZT in schools and other bureaucratic institutions.
An odd thing for the author of the True Stella Awards to promote? Not at all: I’ve always said that most lawsuits are legitimate. Just because some aren’t doesn’t mean that it’s not an effective tool in righteous situations. When suits against ZT are filed and won, it will certainly be a powerful tool for reform.
But there’s another tool that could be more effective, if only politicians would follow through: legislative action. After such cases as you read in True, state legislators often get into the act. Texas has a lot of ZT cases, and has had a lot of action from legislators — all, unfortunately, totally ineffective (so far).
My Voice is No Longer a Solo Act
I truly love it that other columnists are finally taking up the cause regarding ZT — something I’ve been doing since 1995 (more than ten years!) Anyway, after the fire alarm case, Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey wrote a piece titled “Bills Seek to Decriminalize Childhood” (now there’s a good idea!) He reported on several attempts in the Texas legislature to counter ZT in schools:
- “Rep. Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands), who chairs the House Education Committee, tried to pass legislation two years ago that would have required school officials to take into consideration such factors as the child’s intention in the matter and his or her disciplinary history. The bill was watered down after school officials promised they would cut back on ‘zero tolerance’ idiocy.” As you have seen in True, they didn’t cut back on their idiocy. But too late: the empty promise killed the bill.
- “Rep. Dora Olivo (D-Missouri City) is pushing a bill that would allow a student who discovers he inadvertently left a Boy Scout knife in his pocket, or a hunting gun in his truck, to tell a school official and turn the knife or gun over without reprisal.” How sad that such a bill is needed, but it is.
- And most recently, “Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) says he may call [the fire alarm kid] to testify regarding legislation intended to turn ‘zero tolerance’ into ‘common sense’ at the state’s schools,” Casey reports. What a concept! Dutton is in a position to do something: he chairs the House Committee on Juvenile Justice & Family Issues and was “appalled” at the charges against the boy. And it’s not just that case that gets his attention. Cops, Dutton says, have “issued tickets for chewing gum.” Mr. Dutton, that’s hardly the most outrageous thing they’ve done! Luckily, he finds it outrageous that police departments are being used to enforce school rules.
In my opinion, this is where the real trouble often starts: the police take action, and sometimes find themselves in a position where they “have to” find a criminal charge to justify arresting the kids for school rule violations, and then the wheels of “justice” are put in motion, subjecting the kids to the possibility of truly harsh punishments for minor transgressions.
Once charges are filed, prosecutors feel like they have to keep pressing, since they’d lose face (and lose a case!) if they don’t see the charges through.
If police need to be called, and I don’t dispute that often they do, Dutton insists that parents be called first unless there’s a true emergency going on.
This is critical: kids often are programmed to respect adults, and they end up confessing to transgressions. What they’re really doing is confessing to crimes, providing sometimes the only solid evidence used to prosecute them. Parents need to realize that whatever their kids say “can and will be used against them in a court of law.”
Idiotic school principals will often even pressure the kids to write their confessions down and sign them — and then that’s used in court against the kids!
Advise the kids of their rights? No need: school officials aren’t the police, so they’re not required to do that. (They are, however, government officials, so it’d be interesting to see a lawsuit over this point.)
Parents need to learn this vital lesson: they must not allow their kids to confess transgressions, especially in writing, without the counsel of a lawyer. It’s truly sad that it’s come to this, but children are ending up with criminal records over truly trivial mistakes that kids make.
That’s “fire,” and school officials took the first shot. It’s time to fight fire with fire. Pull the alarm, Casey.
January 2009 Update
Prosecutor Cari Allen did finally drop the charges — days before the boy’s felony trial was to begin. Casey’s parents, furious over their son being under criminal indictment for more than six months, indeed sued the school; the district settled for $5,000. (Source)
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