The Columbine Effect

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Kids can bargain with school officials, but have virtually no First or Fourth Amendment rights (guaranteeing basic civil liberties and preventing undue searches). Unless they can invoke a special circumstance, such as a mental disability, kids often have thin grounds on which to base a defense against school punishment. That's because the U.S. Supreme Court has eroded student protections granted in the 1960s. In 1995 Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a caustic decision allowing drug testing of students. "Minors," he said, "lack some of the most fundamental rights of self-determination--including even the right of liberty in its narrow sense, i.e., the right to come and go at will." The ruling was widely seen to give administrators carte blanche in punishing students, though schools still must follow some weak due-process guidelines.

If the corrective to zero-tolerance excesses won't come from courts, it may come from parents. Communities sometimes revolt against pitiless punishments. In Hartford, Wis., outside Milwaukee, 550 people crammed into a high school cafeteria for a shouting match over zero tolerance. Since the beginning of the academic year, 10 students have been expelled from the school for various infractions. Raged one parent: "Expulsion is just another unfeeling word for abandonment."

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