Sensible 'Zero Tolerance'

When Kameryan Lueng, a second-grader from Alexandria, La., brought her grandfather's watch to school for show-and-tell, she had no idea she was breaking the school's "zero tolerance" policy on weapons. The watch, it happens, had a 1-inch pocketknife attached to its chain. Kameryan was suspended and sent for the month to a local school for problem students.

We're reminded of an incident last fall, when a six-year-old boy from Lexington, Ky., was suspended from school for kissing a female classmate on the cheek, violating his school's sexual-harassment policy. Soon after, another boy, from Queens, N.Y., was similarly punished for pulling a button off a girl's skirt.

In response to public outcry over the kissing case, the Lexington school board later voted to revise its sexual-harassment policy, allowing school officials to consider, among other things, a student's age and maturity.

While administrators should never condone the presence of dangerous weapons or illegal drugs in schools, mandatory punishments don't always make sense. The Alexandria school, for example, should have considered the nature of the "weapon" Kameryan was carrying. It also might have looked closely at her motive, which was to share with her classmates, not to do harm.

Violence and drugs in schools is a serious problem. As President Clinton said in his State of the Union address, the country should support those schools that are taking strong stands against weapons and drugs, mainly through implementation of "zero tolerance" policies. But school administrators also should have the flexibility to decide punishments on a case-by-case basis.

Suspending a second-grader who was carrying her grandfather's pocket watch "because that's the policy" makes very little sense. In their dogmatism and irrationality, such official acts work against the purpose of conveying to children a clearer sense of right and wrong.

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