The Columbine Effect

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A seven-year-old boy in Cahokia, Ill., is suspended for having a nail clipper at school. A 10th-grader at Surry County High School in Virginia is booted for having blue-dyed hair. A Minnesota high school nixes a yearbook photo of an Army enlistee in the senior class because it shows her sitting atop a cannon outside a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Welcome to the American school after Columbine. It can be a place brimming with suspicion, where in the past few months school officials have seen a nail file as a knife and blue hair as an omen of antisocial, possibly even violent behavior. (Judges sent both those boys back to class.) It's an environment in which a school bans even images of weapons, like the one depicting Samantha Jones of Nevis, Minn., perched on a 155-mm howitzer. After student protests, officials agreed last week to a new photo with a U.S. flag draped over the cannon.

It's understandable that school officials are unsettled these days. Polls show that most Americans favor "zero tolerance" policies for campus violence, and many parents demand tough-minded, short-term solutions even as they wait for the results of more complex approaches like better mentoring and earlier intervention for troubled children. It may seem silly to go after a kid whose only crime is manicuring during school hours. But how do you know whom to treat sympathetically at a time when 11-year-olds commit murder? (Now 13, Nathaniel Abraham was convicted last month in Michigan of shooting a stranger in the head.) And how do you decide which kids are just morose and creative--and which ones are plotting to kill?

A zero-tolerance approach ends the guesswork. In the early '90s, schools began adopting one-strike-and-you're-out policies for kids who secreted weapons or drugs on campus. The President gave zero tolerance a big push when he signed a 1994 law requiring one-year suspension for students who take guns to school. But by definition, zero tolerance erases distinctions among student offenses. Hence the national crackdown on Alka-Seltzer. Since 1996, schools in four states have suspended at least 20 children for possession of the fizzy medicine.

Such excesses have popped up with some regularity for a few years, but the consequences for rule breaking are getting harsher. Jesse Jackson has made an issue of severe punishment in Decatur, Ill., where six students were thrown out of school for one year for fighting at a football game. But that sort of violence (a videotape of the incident shows a wild brawl) has long been cause for expulsion. What's new is that even pranks can land kids not just before the school board but before a judge. Two weeks ago in Virginia, a pair of 10-year-olds appeared before a judge on felony charges that they tried to kill or injure their teacher. One of them squirted soap gel into the teacher's water bottle as the other watched. The teacher wasn't hurt, but he felt threatened enough to contact police.

Administrators have also begun to show zero tolerance for things students merely say or write. Call it subzero tolerance. Last spring Antonius Brown, 18, wrote a story in his journal about a deranged student who goes on a rampage at Brown's high school, Therrell, in Atlanta. It's a sick story. Eventually officials heard about it and suspended him for 20 days. But Brown happened to return from that suspension on April 20, the day of the Columbine massacre. He was expelled two days later in the fearful atmosphere of the moment. Police charged him with making terrorist threats. Brown spent three days in jail, and then a municipal judge ordered him to leave town for two months.

School officials defended their actions by noting that Brown, like the Columbine shooters, had been teased. Although the judge decided in August that Brown's journal entries did not constitute a threat, he also found that Brown had made threatening remarks, such as a promise to "mess with" the Class of '99. But if Brown needed help, he didn't exactly get it. Prosecutors are still weighing a case against him, and Brown has had to switch schools. Zero tolerance is "an easy way to get rid of troubled students," says John Whitehead, head of the Rutherford Institute, a civil-liberties group best known for representing Paula Jones and now helping the soap boys. "But we don't deal with their real problems."

When does flirting become a real problem? Ask MeShelle Locke, 16, of Lacey, Wash. On Nov. 5, she was kidding around with a boy in English class at North Thurston High. He made some wisecrack to the teacher, and Locke looked at him, made a gun with her thumb and index finger, and said, "Bang." The boy, whom she often joked with, wondered if it was a threat. "No," MeShelle said lightly, "it's a promise."

You would have thought she had pulled a .357 Magnum. Some girls confronted her about the "incident," and an exasperated Locke made the same dumb threatening gesture to them. The next school day, she was met by a police officer, who read Miranda rights to her (but didn't arrest her). Then she was expelled. "It's not happening," she thought. Locke's parents got involved, and she returned after a four-day suspension.

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