Also this spring, a Virginia boy who dyed his hair blue was given an in-school suspension because of the unusual color of his coif, which school officials termed disruptive. The boy's mother allowed him to dye his hair only after he had improved his grades to A's and B's. When the ACLU challenged the school's action, the boy was allowed to return to classes.
A ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Solution
Critics of the zero-tolerance policies behind these cases do not say that the children involved should not face some discipline or punishment, but argue that subjecting children to mandatory suspensions for such infractions does more harm than good.
"Let's make a decision based on a real understanding of what's going on," said Rutgers University psychology professor Maurice Elias. "If we don't have a real understanding of the cause, let's not take any action on it."
The National Education Association, the union that represents 2.7 million teachers and education support staff nationwide, "in general" opposes zero tolerance because they make it impossible for teachers and administrators to use their own knowledge of a situation and the student involved to determine what needs to be done, according to a spokeswoman.
"We think it takes away the judgment of an administrator and a teacher who are in the best position to make a decision," NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons said. "People have to be able to use their judgment."
The American Federation of Teachers, the nation's other major teachers union, originally supported zero tolerance rules, but now opposes them, calling like the NEA for more consideration of incidents on a case-by-case basis.
The American Bar Association has also come out in opposition to zero tolerance. In February 2001, the ABA adopted a resolution critical of the policies.
"Zero tolerance has become a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools confront. It has redefined students as criminals, with unfortunate consequences," the ABA resolution said.
One example noted in the ABA resolution was the case of a 12-year-old Louisiana boy who was turned over to police for telling the kids ahead of him in a lunchroom line, "I'm going to get you," if they took all the potatoes.
‘Adults Staking Moral Authority’
But if the policies so often leave egg on the faces of the administrators who mete out the punishment and are so bad for the education of students, then why are they so popular with the country's schools?
"On the one hand it's simple," Elias said. "I think it has more to do with the fear of lawsuits than anything else. On a deeper level, I think it bespeaks adults trying to stake their moral authority when there are really many shades of gray."
In the case of Becca Johnson, school officials said those shades of gray were considered.
They said that there was an investigation and that the school's zero-tolerance stance only applies to gun and drug offenses, not situations where a threat might have been made without any weapon being involved. The girl's mother, however, said she could only believe that her daughter's suspension was the result of a zero-tolerance policy.
"This does away with due process and inflicts a penalty without a hearing or investigation," said Becca's mother, Barbara Johnson.
Just Say No