MIAMI — Almost six years have passed since the Columbine massacre prompted American schools to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to students' misbehavior. Where the threat of a detention might once have been used to control an unruly student, a teacher today is as likely to call for a police cruiser.
Now, three recent episodes in Florida elementary schools in which police handcuffed and removed children as young as 6 are crystallizing a national debate on finding a proper and practical balance between safety and tolerance. To school officials and safety advocates, such stepped-up vigilance - and discipline - is the only way to protect students from another Columbine. But to critics, incidents such as those in Florida are disturbing examples of how administrators have grown overzealous in their responses to classroom doodles and rumors of violent schemes.
"Tough criminal sanctions are absurd at that age," says Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. "Florida is not alone. There are still many places in the country where adults are completely losing their bearings."
In Melbourne, Fla., two officers from the Cocoa Police Department were called to Endeavour Elementary School, where a 6-year-old boy had thrown a tantrum and struck a teacher. He then hit one officer on the head with a book. Brevard County prosecutors have placed a felony battery charge under review.
In Ocala, boys aged 9 and 10 were suspended from school after police arrested them on charges of making a written threat to kill or harm another person in the form of a stick-figure drawing of themselves stabbing a third pupil. Teachers called in sheriff's deputies when the picture was discovered.
In the third Florida incident, an adult felony-assault charge is pending against a 9-year-old boy alleged to have tried to cut a fellow pupil's finger with a pair of scissors during an art class. The boy, who has a history of disruption at Fort McCoy Elementary School, also in Marion County, is currently on home detention.
Sue Mosley, chair of the county school board, says she backs the schools' decisions to call for police assistance. "We have had a number of situations in our schools over the last year, and we will call law enforcement every time to be on the safe side," she says, pointing out the risk and worry that a more violent incident could follow infractions like these.
"We found out from a teacher and the mother that the boy who reported the stick drawings had been bullied for months," Ms. Mosley continues. "Children must know that they are coming to school to get an education, and nothing else."
Mr. Schwartz, however, believes the schools' responses was disproportionate, given the children's ages and alleged misdeeds.
"The fact they were all arrested is what concerns me most," he says. "We're not talking about 16-year-olds: They're 6 and above. Educators should know the difference. You can't deter 6-year-olds through criminal sanctions, life doesn't work that way."
Since the 1999 shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in which two teenagers killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide, the number of weapons confessed to in American schools has fallen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that 6.1 percent of high school students admitted they had carried a gun, knife, or club on school property in 2003, down from 6.9 percent in 1999.
At that level, Schwartz says, educators acted responsibly. "The reaction to Columbine was appropriate. We don't want guns and knives in our schools, and kids who bring weapons to school should be arrested and dealt with appropriately."
But, he cautions, the Columbine massacre has little to do with a 6-year-old's use of scissors or, as happened in Texas, a teenager's decision to bring a Korean pencil sharpener to school. "It's like a virus has hit Florida," he says. "Zero tolerance runs amok."
Philadelphia, too, has seen its share of incidents. Last month, city police arrested and handcuffed 10-year-old Porsche Brown when a pair of eight-inch scissors was found in her art bag. The school district later apologized to her mother, and said their reaction was a waste of police resources.
In another Philadelphia example, a 16-year-old class president and honor student was suspended for a year when a four-inch penknife was discovered in his pocket. The boy said he had forgotten the knife was in the pants, which he'd been wearing over the weekend.
To Russ Skiba, director of the Indiana University Institute for Child Study, zero tolerance amounts to "policy by anecdote": "There's nothing to show it improves student behavior, other than somebody saying, 'Well, it works in our school.' "
Schwartz's group is calling for school boards to rethink zero-tolerance policies, while lawmakers in Texas want to take things a step further. A bill introduced by Republican Jon Lindsay that reached committee stage this week would require that "a student's intent be considered" in any reaction to an incident.
State Senator Lindsay points to a 2003 case in which which 13-year-old Sumi Lough of Katy, Texas, was disciplined for bringing a traditional Korean pencil sharpener - a two-inch blade that folds into a handle - to class. School officials removed the girl from her post as president of the student council and rescinded her membership in the honor society.
School boards, cautions Lindsay, "must not be allowed to hide behind zero-tolerance legislation."