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Is "zero tolerance" going too far?

By Catherine Hawley, Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 22 2013 06:00:00 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 25 2013 05:16:02 AM CST

Zero tolerance policy in schools

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

There have been a handful of incidents recently across the northeast where children playing with pretend weapons were suspended from school.  And it's bringing up questions about "zero tolerance" policies. 

Are they kids with active imaginations, or potential threats to school safety? 

Some district officials are taking the latter view, suspending small children for faking gun play.  Parents say these little learners pose no threat to anyone.

"If it's a finger or a paper gun, bubble gun or anything like that I think they might be taking it a little too far," said Joe Ross.

"I think when you're talking about little kids at that age, it's a little ridiculous," added Joshua Corrow.

Recent school violence has some teachers and parents on edge.  There's a heightened awareness and sensitivity, and classmates  may feel threatened when children pretend at school.

"It really does make people feel uncomfortable," shared Diana Malave.  "The children don't feel safe when kids act that way."

The debate has people taking aim at 'zero tolerance' policies.  Conceived as a way to improve school security, a 1994 federal law mandated a minimum one year expulsion for any student caught with a gun on school property.

"We do allow administrators to have leeway in the disposition of discipline to a certain extent," explained Director of Student Services at Bethlehem Area School District Dr. Dean Donaher.

At the Bethlehem Area School District their zero tolerance policies have some flexibility.  Many districts have moved in this direction, especially when younger students are involved.

"Everything doesn't have to be detention, everything doesn't have to be suspension," said Donaher.  "We try to find out what would work to change the behavior of the student, because that's the ultimate goal."

Many parents just want district leaders to use common sense.

"We're trying very hard to make sure that kids feel this is a safe environment for them to be in," added Donaher.  "And for the most part I believe we meet that challenge."

Some experts say there's little evidence zero tolerance makes schools safer, while supporters say it's a useful and necessary tool.