Zero tolerance for zero tolerance
Posted: November 1, 2007
1:00 a.m. Eastern
An Arizona high school student who is a competitive shotgun shooter was recently suspended for inadvertently leaving two unopened boxes of shotgun shells in her car. She did not – I repeat, not – have a gun in the car. The school cited its zero tolerance policy as justification for the suspension. This incident shows why reasonable people should have zero tolerance for policies that devastate a student's future without good reason.
Kim Peters, 17, attends Willow Canyon High School in Surprise, Ariz. (a suburb of Phoenix). She is also a competitive shotgun shooter who diligently practices her sport 12 hours a week at the Ben Avery Shooting Facility owned and operated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. She has won several skeet-shooting trophies and was one of 18 students selected from across the nation to attend the Junior Olympic shooting camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., this past summer.
Last week, in her haste to get to school one morning, she accidentally left two unopened boxes of shotgun shells in her car. Her gun was properly stored at home, but she overlooked the shells in the back seat.
When a parking lot security guard saw the boxes through the window, Peters was suspended from school for four days under the school's policy relating to possession of a "dangerous instrument." If nothing changes, this will put a permanent negative mark on her academic record just as she is seeking to get into college – the "dangerous instrument" language will surely send up a red flag to college admissions officers who may think it refers to a gun or bomb and look no further before putting her application in the reject pile.
Willow Canyon High School has a zero-tolerance policy on firearms. And it has taken that policy to the extreme by suspending a good student for having ammunition in her car, even when school officials know she is a participant in a legitimate sporting activity and that there was no firearm in the car and no intent on her part to cause harm to anyone.
This is sad. This young lady is no danger to anyone. She is an accomplished athlete who brings credit to her school. In fact, it appears that school officials believe her explanation that in her haste not to be late for school she forgot to remove the two small boxes – unopened boxes – from her car. They agree she poses no threat. Yet they suspended her anyway and have denied her parents' appeal, citing the school's zero-tolerance policy.
Not tolerating gun violence is good policy; those who endanger innocent people through misusing firearms should be subject to serious punishment. People should be held accountable for actions that endanger others. Most zero-tolerance policies originated with such goals in mind.
But this situation does not fit that goal. What Kim Peters had in her car was not a gun, but only ammunition, just a couple boxes of shotgun shells. What's the danger? That she would start throwing them at people? Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that those shells are harmless in the absence of a shotgun.
You don't make rules just for the sake of making rules; you make rules to accomplish a specific purpose. And in a free society, the rules should impose no greater burden than to accomplish that purpose.
In the wake of school shootings, many schools have become aggressive in tightening safety rules. But the rules should be applied on a case-by-case basis to keep students safe, using sound judgment and taking all circumstances into account. Rules should not be mechanically applied without common sense, especially when such blind application can destroy a good student's hopes of higher education.
Leaving the ammunition boxes in the car was a mistake. Kim admits she was careless in doing so. But that mistake should not tarnish this promising young student's record and become an obstacle to her future education and successful career.
Guns were relatively common at school a generation ago, and their presence was not even a cause for concern. Many students stored rifles or shotguns in their cars or in school lockers so they could participate in school-sponsored shooting competitions or go deer hunting after class. There were no school shootings, other than at paper targets on the rifle range.
The fact that things have changed does require heightened school security but does not justify the kind of overreaction that occurred here. We're not talking about a student taking a gun to school or even having a gun in their car. All Kim Peters did was forget to remove two unopened boxes of shotgun shells from her car after practice.
This is a sad example of zero tolerance run amok. Policies that keep students safe are good. Policies that devastate a young lady's academic record because of an innocent and harmless mistake are not.
A little common sense, please. School officials should be reasonable. And there should be zero tolerance for polices that harm the very students they are designed to protect.