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Zero Tolerance, Zero Sense

May 07, 2003

What do you suppose the children at Orange County's Pyles Elementary School learned last week when a fifth-grader was disciplined for turning in a pocketknife that a buddy had handed him earlier in the day?

Don't do the right thing if risk is involved. Don't take the time to think through a moral quandary. Whatever you do, don't tell a teacher the truth.

Eight years ago, when zero-tolerance fever was sweeping the nation, this editorial page supported strong rules against campus drugs and weapons but warned against blanket policies that left no room for good judgment. A spate of incidents since then illustrates the folly of absolutism.

In Texas, a model student was expelled because his grandmother's blunt-tipped bread knife fell, unnoticed, into the back of his pickup truck while he was helping her move.

A Colorado school moved to expel an A student who borrowed her mother's lunch box, not realizing a side pocket contained a small fruit knife.

As lawsuits were filed and won, some school districts inserted flexibility into their rules. Los Angeles Unified has always had that. It's time for the rest to follow.

The Orange County fifth-grader, Keith Post, 10, was a collector of good-citizenship awards at his Stanton school before he ran afoul of a rigid zero-tolerance rule. The undisputed story is that a friend found the 2-inch-long pocketknife in the cafeteria and, being pocketless, asked Keith to hold on to it for him until later.

Keith stupidly agreed, then realized his mistake. It gnawed at his conscience for the next two hours in class. Should he take the chance of getting in trouble for a knife that wasn't his? Should he tattle on a friend?

After he'd worked it out in his mind, the fifth-grader raised his hand and offered the knife to his teacher. He confessed that it had been in his pocket for a couple of hours.

The school suspended him for five days, then reduced it to one day. Finally, it put him on probation and placed a note in his permanent student record, saying it had no choice because he did not immediately turn in the knife.

His parents refused to sign a document accepting the punishment, and good for them. The school meted out the same discipline to his pocketless friend, whose parents are not challenging it.

Do officials at the Magnolia School District, which oversees Pyles Elementary, think Keith's experience is going to keep children from making a fleeting mistake that harms no one? Too bad they missed a chance to teach a bigger lesson about the importance of thinking through a wrong step and correcting course. And about how friends don't get friends involved in rule-breaking.

Keith needs a new pal. And the Magnolia School District needs a new set of rules.

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