Zero tolerance doesn't add up

A knife at an elementary school. The thought of such a scenario draws involuntary shivers from parents everywhere.
Feb 20, 2013


The very idea of it makes one imagine a scene in which a knife-wielding maniac planned to attack innocent children.

After the incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School, this immediate reaction isn’t far off base from the reality some parents have had to face.

But what happened recently at West Michigan Academy of Arts and Academics wasn’t menacing, or all that much cause for alarm.

A second-grade boy simply made a “mistake,” as the school director put it, and took his Cabela’s multi-tool knife to class with him. He didn’t have some diabolical plan to hurt anyone with his less than 2-inch blade. Nor is he a troubled youth.

But with the zero-tolerance policies as they are in this country, and the recent hyper-vigilance subscribed to post-Sandy Hook, the boy was immediately suspended. Luckily, the blade wasn’t an inch longer, which would have made it state-mandated that the boy be suspended or expelled.

Don’t blame the school, or its director, for the suspension. While it may seem an overreaction, and that the suspension doesn’t match the crime, the school is not to blame for this apparent overreaction.

To blame are the zero-tolerance policies that have been enacted across the nation in the post-Columbine era. State and local school boards made up of people who are passionate about protecting our youth from violence may have gone a bit too far.

Now students are being suspended or expelled for minor things — dying their hair the wrong color, including a camping knife-fork-spoon set in a lunch bag, drawing a picture of a soldier in combat, passing out mints at the cafeteria table, or water-balloon senior pranks.

Twenty years ago, none of these things would have resulted in anything more than perhaps an after-school detention or a principal’s office visit.

Adults now expect children — even young elementary-age children — to understand complex policies and exhibit strong decision-making skills. There’s not even room in the rules to make an honest mistake.

That’s the shame of it all. Perhaps school leaders across the country need to take a critical look at their policies and inject a bit of common sense. Allow school administrators the flexibility and discretion to discipline student behavior based on the facts. Allow them to move past the zero-tolerance policies that include hysteria about what might have happened, and look more at what did happen.

And what did happen in Ferrysburg was a young boy simply taking his multi-tool to school with him.

Bad decision, yes. But cause for the zero-tolerance suspension policy? No.

Our Views reflects the majority opinion of the members of the Grand Haven Tribune editorial board: Kevin Hook, Cheryl Welch, Matt DeYoung and Fred VandenBrand. What do you think? E-mail us a letter to the editor to or log-in to our website and leave a comment below.










Very well said! Zero tolerance policies in schools are doing nothing more than making criminals out of American children. Everything is so black and white that no one uses any common sense anymore.


Zero tolerance shows teachers and principles lack of good judgement exactly when a child needs to be seeing it the most.


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