Becca Johnson thought she was just blowing off steam after doing badly on a test, but to school officials doodles on the back of her test paper looked like the 11-year-old was thinking of blowing someone away, so the honor roll student was suspended.
The notice of Johnson's suspension from Mellon Middle School in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., reached her home the same day that a letter announcing she'd been named to the honor roll arrived, her baffled parents said.
They said they taught her to use writing and drawing as an outlet for frustration she might feel in situations such as the one she was in, having just received a "D" on a vocabulary test.
They believe that Becca fell victim to a "zero-tolerance" policy at the school, which required administrators to suspend any student caught making a threat against teachers without any consideration of the individual circumstances.
While that kind of impartiality is part of what supporters of zero-tolerance policies say makes the rules good, according to some psychologists it can contribute to an adversarial relationship between students and teachers in schools that are already overcrowded and understaffed.
When students are suspended for infractions without being allowed to offer an explanation, they lose respect for authority, psychologists say. And that reaction on the part of students who are suspended, combined with the forced absence from school can do serious damage to a child's ability to learn, they say.
School administrators say they want to send a message that certain behavior will not be tolerated in schools, but critics say the real issue is concern about lawsuits and school officials' desire to get troublemakers out of the system, rather than actually addressing the causes of misbehavior.
Litany of Absurdity
If Becca Johnson's situation seemed to be an anomaly, critics of zero tolerance would likely have little ammunition, but every week it seems there is another case that provides fodder for arguments against the policies.
The same week that Johnson was suspended for drawing stick figures of her teachers with arrows through their heads, a 17-year-old in Fayette County, Ga., was suspended and arrested when school officials found a machete he used in his part-time landscaping business in the back of his truck, which he'd driven to school.
The boy and his father said he had worked late the evening before and simply forgot to take his tools out of the truck.
In April, a Madison, Wis., sixth-grader was suspended and told he would be expelled for a year when he brought a steak knife to school to dissect an onion for a class science project. The boy's family challenged the school's decision, and after a hearing before the school board the district's zero tolerance policy was amended to soften the punishment for students who have been caught with knives or other implements that could be considered weapons but have "no harmful intent."
Earlier this spring, a 10-year-old Sumter County, Fla., girl was suspended after she pointed an oak leaf she was pretending was a gun at classmate during a game she called "Civil War." School officials said the girl threatened her classmate, pretended to stab her and said she was going to kill her.