Tuesday, March 19, 2002
I'm glad I went through high school when I did. Graduating from Helix High School in La Mesa, Calif., in 1990, instead of 1993 when my younger sister did, now looks like one of the better things I did in life. I say this for a couple of reasons. First, and least, they started counting physical education as part of the grade point average a couple years after I graduated. This move certainly would have affected my class standing, in a bad way. I think the move was part of a plot to increase the jocks' ability to stay eligible for extracurricular sports. Second is the zero-tolerance insanity that's wracked the nation's schools.
It's not that I think that kids should be allowed to bring firearms onto campus. It's just that I think there's a big difference between bringing a firearm on campus and having a butter knife in the bed of your pickup truck.
Earlier this month an honors student at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, Texas was expelled from school for a year because a school security guard found a non-serrated knife in the bed of his pickup.
The teen's story began on a Sunday afternoon with him and his father packing linens, books and kitchenware that had belonged to his ailing grandmother. At sunset, Hess and his father delivered a truckload of boxes to Goodwill Super Store in Hurst.
The next morning at school, Hess was removed from class. A school security guard had seen a nonserrated bread knife with a 10-inch blade in the bed of the teen's pickup. It must have fallen out of one of the Goodwill boxes, Hess explained.
But the H-E-B district's Student Code of Conduct - which Hess and his mother, Gay Hess, both signed - prohibits students from bringing weapons onto school grounds. "This is a serious offense," Taylor Hess was told by school officials.
Yes, this is a serious offense because school officials are complete and utter morons. Zero-tolerance policies turn somewhat intelligent administrators with advanced degrees into mindless automatons who automatically expel any student found with something they consider dangerous.
Elementary school kids have been suspended from school for using small carrots to mimic a gun. It reminds me an old Monty Python stick where an instructor is teaching self-defense if you're attacked by a madman wielding fresh fruit. After encouraging a student to attack him with a banana, the instructor shoots the student dead and then eats the banana -- "Thus disarming him."
At the end of the three-hour meeting, school officials told Hess that his action posed a threat to his fellow students. Four days after the hearing, he was expelled.
That's right...having a bread knife in your pickup truck poses a threat to fellow students.
H-E-B district officials maintained throughout the Hess hearing that students' safety must be the overriding factor in any situation where a weapon is found on campus.
"I do feel he [Hess] put students at risk, whether he knowingly did that or not," Dianne Byrnes, H-E-B director of alternative education programs, said at the hearing.
I'm not sure whether Byrnes really believes that statement, or whether she's eyeing the few extra bucks she'll get with another student at the continuation school. I really hope that she's shallow enough to be after the money, and not stupid enough to believe this kid really was putting other students at risk. Seriously, following this line of logic, Child Protective Services should swoop down on every household in this country where sharp knives are in drawers. I mean, the parents are obviously putting the children at risk. Having knives in such close proximity to kids.
Sound stupid? Of course it is -- and so is zero tolerance. There is obviously a difference between Hess, an honors student who's never been in trouble, having a butter knife in his pickup truck and the student who is always getting in fights, spouts hate speech and threatens other people having a butter knife in his pickup truck.
I never brought a weapon to school that I can remember. I would have gotten kicked out of school because of drugs.Yes, I took drugs to school -- often. No, not cocaine. Not marijuana. Not heroin. Even worse -- cold medicine. Yep, little, yellow cold tablets. Even back then, if you were taking medicine you were supposed to take it to the office and the nurse would give it to you when it was time for it. Well, that was a pain in the butt. I was a teenager. I could read. "Take one tablet every four hours." Yeah, really difficult. From time to time I'd also have to take antibiotics. Those went in the backpack too. I also had a small bottle of aspirin in my locker for much of my senior year. Having to walk across campus and then wait for the nurse to give you your medicine would've taken up half my lunch time. And the nurse's office is really where I wanted to spend my lunch time.
Now, I'm not so sure that the rule that the nurse has to dispense medicine should be done away with, but I think what happened back then should happen now. Teachers and administrators should not make a federal case out of it. If a teacher is suspicious, ask what the drug is, look at the label, and then leave it be. I'm sure teachers saw me, in between blowing my nose and coughing, occasionally pop some cold medicine, but I never got sent to the principal's office.
Unfortunately, there's too much stupidity around this issue too -- even when it comes to a lifesaving drug -- asthma inhalers.
Just before the beginning of this school year, the Bristol Township School Board in Pennsylvania decided that students with asthma must keep their emergency inhalers in the school office, rather than on hand.
On September 7, the board received a letter from Nancy Sander, executive director of the Allergy and Asthma Network/Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA), a national asthma support and education group based in Fairfax, Virginia. Sander’s letter neatly encapsulated the all-too-common frustration of parents when their doctor’s advice about how to care for an asthmatic child encounters a school with an entrenched hall-monitor mentality. The letter read, in part:
"The decision to accommodate and facilitate a child’s needs with asthma is far easier than pretending their needs do not exist or that restricting student access to medications is for the safety of all students. To do so places your students with asthma at greater risk of death or missed school days, their classmates at risk of witnessing their death, and your school board at risk of lawsuits....
"If a student placed a plastic bag over a teacher’s head for a brief moment, the student would be charged with assault. But a school board voting to restrict a child’s access to his life-saving asthma medication is no less guilty of a crime. Is Bristol Township School Board really ready to accept responsibility for violating a child’s right to breathe? Are you prepared to breach the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act?"
Three days later, the school board held a hearing and reversed its original decision. Students in Bristol Township are now allowed to retain control of their asthma inhalers.
Of course, this begs the question: "What were they thinking in the first place?" The answer is, they weren't. The author of the article has a kid with asthma, and has come across the mentality that the school nurse should keep all drugs, including the inhalers, locked up in the nurses office -- where they do no good to the kid.
One day when in the fifth grade, however, she was in tears when I picked her up from school. The teacher had yelled at her when she’d used the inhaler in class, claiming that she didn’t really need it.
I spoke to Ivanhoe’s then-principal, Kevin Baker. He said I’d been "breaking the law" for five years by keeping the inhaler in the backpack instead of in the office, and that he would "confiscate" it if he found it there in the future. If the school had allowed this before, he said, it was an oversight. "So now what we need to do," he explained, in a sing-songy, Romper Room voice, "is set up a series of intervention meetings to help you understand our concerns about you breaking the law." My arguments about doctor’s orders went nowhere. "When your daughter is at school," Principal Baker said, "I am the ultimate authority concerning her health."
That Robert De Niro soundbite from The Untouchables that Howard Stern likes to play -- "I want him dead! I want his family dead!" -- kept echoing in my head as I left the school office. But I’d heard enough misinformed pronouncements over the years from that school -- a jellyfish is a mollusk, "Indian" should be spelled with a small i -- to consider the possibility that the principal didn’t know what he was talking about. So I went home and called the Los Angeles Unified School District’s director of nursing. Within an hour, I had a fax on Principal Baker’s desk saying that district policy (Bulletin Z-19, Attachment F) does allow students to keep medicine on hand with a note from their doctor. I sent a copy to his supervisor, and he backed down quickly.
It gets worse, at least once, this sort of nonsense has cost someone their life.
In her letter to the Bristol Township School Board, Nancy Sander referred to the 1991 death of a New Orleans high school student, Catrina Lewis, who was delayed by security guards before being allowed to get her inhaler from the office. When it didn’t help, she asked school staff to call an ambulance; instead they spent a half-hour trying to call her mother first. Catrina’s sister, another student, finally called 911 herself, but emergency help arrived too late. In 1996, a New Orleans judge ordered Lawless High School’s acting principal, a school counselor, and the school board to pay $1 million in damages to Catrina’s family.
They should've paid much more than $1 million dollars and I hope that the principal and that counselor are reminded every day of their lives that their stupidity cost a girl her life.
At least in the Hess case there is a small flicker that the school principal recognized that there was something wrong about the expulsion.
During the hearing, Short, the L.D. Bell principal, described Hess as "an exemplary student" and said the expulsion was a difficult decision.
"Zero tolerance makes you feel you lose your judgment you might otherwise be able to afford," Short said on the tape.
I'm not sure I can say it any better myself -- and that's why it needs to be changed.