Lawmakers should reconsider ‘zero tolerance’

A local school teacher or principal suggesting a 6-year-old girl be expelled for bringing her mother’s nail clippers to class probably would be laughed out of a job. At least we can hope that is what would happen in such circumstances.

But in Cincinnati, school officials proposed that very punishment for a little girl. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and different, less severe, discipline was employed.

Like many states, Ohio has “zero tolerance” policies concerning certain types of misbehavior in public schools. They have resulted in truly astounding miscarriages of justice.

One southwest Ohio middle school student, after taking a weekend camping trip with the Boy Scouts, accidentally left his Swiss Army Knife in his backpack. When it was discovered at his school, he was suspended for 80 days.

Opponents of punishing students unrealistically for minor misdeeds or simple carelessness say Ohio’s 1998 “zero tolerance” law needs to be replaced. It should, of course. Local school officials ought to be given more leeway in disciplining students.

During the 2010-11 school year, just 6 percent of student suspensions in Ohio involved weapons, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Sixty-four percent were due to “disobedient or disruptive behavior,” “intimidation” or, believe it or not, truancy.

Part of the challenge is the federal “zero tolerance” law, however. It requires expelling students caught taking guns to school. Failure to comply can mean loss of federal funding.

State Sen. Charleta Tavares, D-Columbus, is proposing Ohio’s statute be reworked. “We’re looking at using common sense,” she said, adding, “A gun-shaped edible snack is not a weapon. Children bringing Midol or their own medications for their illness is not drugs.”

But common sense cannot be legislated. Some teachers will overreact, no matter what the law says. Some principals and school boards will uphold them.

Whether weapons or illegal drugs are involved or not, school officials need the power to expel some students. For example, the high school boy who threatens to beat up a teacher needs to be sent home. And a child who brings a gun to school – no matter the reason – does not belong among his classmates.

Legislators should replace the 1998 law – but should do so thoughtfully. School discipline laws should have teeth, but they ought to be bared only in situations where a real threat to safety is involved.