Adding Up Zero Tolerance

Tougher discipline in public schools expanded rapidly in the mid-1990s after Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act. It was cemented in place by a series of school shootings in the late '90s, particularly the rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado.

This week's tragic shooting at a high school near San Diego further strengthens the case for such policies.

"Zero tolerance," as it has come to be known, was a reasonable response to the threat of violence in and around schools. It meted out harsh consequences, such as automatic expulsion, to any student who brought a gun or weapon to school.

While it created a greater feeling of safety, zero tolerance also snagged kids who had no intention of violence - such as the boy who brought a box opener in his backpack for use in an after-school job.

Some rethinking, to bring an element of discretion and flexibility to such a rigid policy, was bound to occur in many parts of the United States. The result should be policies that maintain vigilance while allowing common-sense treatment of students who may innocently break the rules. A basic tenet of justice - that penalties ought to be proportionate to the "crime," with motive taken into account - needs to be observed.

That note of reasonableness would encourage more students to support antiviolence policies. A number of potential acts of violence at schools recently have been averted by students who tipped off adults about a peer's plan or suspicious comments. Clearly, more needs to be done to make this positive behavior more common. In the California incident, fellow students knew of the accused gunman's plans, but didn't tell authorities.

Kids themselves who come to feel a sense of responsibility for the safety of their schools are one of the strongest defenses against violence.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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