School Safety: 'Zero Tolerance' Policies Common Sense?

Students charged with "reckless conduct"; oldest is 15.

November 11, 2009, 11:25 AM

Nov. 12, 2009— -- Eighth-graders Cassandra and Aliyah Russell of Chicago never imagined they'd be arrested in their school cafeteria, much less for throwing food.

But that's just what happened following lunchtime mayhem last Thursday at the Perspectives Charter Middle School, south of Chicago. More than two dozen students, ages 11 to 15, were rounded up by police, arrested and charged with misdemeanor reckless conduct.

"They took us to jail, fingerprinted us, mugshotted us, or whatever, all because of a food fight...I was arrested. Handcuffs on," 13-year-old Cassandra told ABC News.

"We were suspended, went to jail and now have to go to court," said 14-year-old Aliyah.

The sisters' mother, Erica, told ABC News she's stunned.

"Who does that? Lock children up for throwing a carrot, a biscuit, milk, Jello," she said. "Who does that?"

The Russell sisters returned to school today after finishing a three-day suspension for their part in the food fight.

Watch the full report on "World News with Charles Gibson" tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET.

So, why weren't the students just given detention?

"The Chicago police officers who help protect our school, concerned about potential injuries resulting from the fight, felt it was necessary to arrest those responsible," the school said in a statement.

The high-performing Perspectives Charter Middle School sends 90 percent of its graduates to college. Its stated mission is to "provide students with a rigorous and relevant education, based on 'A Disciplined Life.'"

But with schools across the country on high alert for dangerous behavior, many parents are asking if their discipline policies -- particularly the zero tolerance approach -- may be going too far.

"You have police coming in and investigating and sometimes taking kids down to the police station -- grade-school children -- for what we used to call childish behavior," John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, told ABC News.

"Zero tolerance" policies – widely adopted by schools across the country after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 -- were initially designed to keep weapons out of schools.

Ten years later, the policies in many schools have expanded to include all sorts of disruptive behavior. Critics say treating major violations and minor infractions the same way defies common sense.

'Zero Tolerance' Cases Raise Some Eyebrows

Over the past few years, several high-profile student discipline cases have raised complaints that schools are blurring the distinction between serious threats to school safety and cases of childish misbehavior.

In one case, a 6-year-old from Delaware was suspended for weapons possession after bringing his Cub Scout combo eating utensil to class, excited to try it out at lunch.

Administrators at a Pennsylvania middle school suspended an 11-year-old honor student who sketched stick figures of her teachers with arrows through their heads.

In Georgia, a high school senior was suspended and arrested after officials found a machete in the back of his truck in the school parking lot. He used the tool in his part-time landscaping business.

And a Virginia boy was suspended for dying his hair blue -- a color school administrators said was disruptive.

Advocates of zero tolerance say the policies are necessary -- the only way to hold students accountable and maintain strict safety standards.

For the Russells and dozens of other students from the Perspectives Charter Middle School food fight, zero tolerance now means a court date.

"It's wrong because it's a food fight," said 13-year-old Cassandra Russell."[But] I never thought I could be arrested for a food fight."

Said Erica Russell, "We're worrying about this being on their record...A food fight? I just can't get over that."

An Illinois state judge will decide later this month whether the charges should be dismissed or upheld with a penalty of probation or community service. State law keeps juveniles' criminal records sealed until the students turn 17, and after that, their records will be wiped clean.

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