Controversy Over 'Zero Tolerance'
by Connie Langland, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 23, 2005
Chris McCarthy had been looking forward to his junior year at Upper
Moreland High School.
Elected president of his class, McCarthy, 16, had been named to the
National Honor Society. His extracurricular activities included the
soccer team, the drama club, and the annual blood drive.
Then, in November, a pocketknife put his high school career on hold
- and placed him in the center of a growing controversy surrounding
Although Pennsylvania state law bans weapons from schools, more
parents and officials say that cautious administrators are
overreacting and expelling students for small infractions. More than
1,700 students in the state were disciplined for bringing knives to
school in 2002-03.
This fall, McCarthy was among the offenders. He says he took his
four-inch knife into the high school because he forgot it was in his
His absentmindedness originally led to a two-week suspension. On
legal advice, the local school board expelled him for the rest of
the school year.
The expulsion angered McCarthy's parents, friends and coaches, who
protested the board's decision. Two board members, Tim Curran and
Mark Wenik, voted against the expulsion, saying that, in some cases,
zero tolerance makes zero sense.
"Zero tolerance makes people feel good, makes them feel the schools
are safe, but what does it really resolve?" Wenik said. "It seems to
catch kids who have no intention of doing harm."
School safety and zero-tolerance laws became a national priority
after the Columbine massacre on April 20, 1999, when two Colorado
students killed 12 other students and a teacher before committing
"There were bomb threats, Internet threats, threats to teachers. The
country was on edge, and people were particularly worried about our
schools," said James Scanlon, superintendent of the Quakertown
Community School District.
Now, he said, public opinion has swung toward moderation in meting
out punishments. School officials are showing more restraint and
taking a student's overall behavior and intentions into account.
"When no threats are made, when nobody's hurt, the superintendent
can use some discretion," Scanlon said. In his district, for
example, a third grader who brought a miniature pocketknife to
school received "a short suspension" last week.
Harsh penalties in cases involving small knives, scissors, toy guns
- even nail clippers - have contributed to a shift in views.
In Philadelphia, 10-year-old Porsche Brown was led from her
elementary school in police handcuffs Dec. 9 after her teacher found
a pair of scissors in her book bag.
"We are all concerned for our children's safety, but zero tolerance
is, like, criminalizing children," said Porsche's mother, Rose
Jackson. Her daughter was suspended for two days.
The incident sparked wide criticism, and city schools chief Paul
Vallas and Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson later apologized
to Porsche's mother. The district amended its rules for handling
nonthreatening situations involving weapons at the elementary-school
level: Police will no longer be summoned.
But the district's policy remains "zero tolerance when it comes to
weapons and violence in our schools," said Vincent Thompson, a
Possession of a weapon, even unintentionally, can still result in
suspension, assignment to a Saturday program, or transfer to a
Part of the confusion over weapons cases stems from sections of
Pennsylvania's Safe Schools Act that seem contradictory.
The first paragraph states that school districts "shall expel, for a
period of not less than one year," any student in possession of a
But the law also gives the superintendent authority "to recommend
modifications" on a case-by-case basis. Some districts read the law
strictly; others say they consider multiple factors. Even expulsions
can vary - from 11 days to one year to permanent.
Stuart Knade, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards
Association, said the stiff weapons laws are proving frustrating to
"The law ties their hands to some degree and makes it more difficult
for them to address individual cases," Knade said.
In 2002-03, the most recent school year for which statistics are
available, Pennsylvania districts expelled 944 students and
suspended 25,284 for incidents ranging from assault (12,218) to
possession of a knife (1,728) to firearms possession (47).
New Jersey school districts use expulsion sparingly. That same
school year, New Jersey districts expelled only 66 students, but
they issued suspensions to 20,734.
That's because New Jersey's law specifically allows the local
superintendent to modify punishment in weapons cases. So expulsion
remains a last-resort policy, said Salvatore Illuzzi, superintendent
of the Cinnaminson schools.
Superintendents have "a degree of latitude to interpret and apply
the law," Illuzzi said. "You have to use your judgment."
Cinnaminson has expelled two students in three years, Illuzzi said.
Both were serious cases that posed "a real threat," he said.
His staff also has dealt with young students' having scissors at
school, he said. "We talk to the parents, talk to the students, put
them in counseling, and it's over with," he said.
But many parents of students snared by zero-tolerance rules say
schools continue to impose severe punishments for minor infractions.
Such harsh responses ignore students' due-process rights and damage
their lives, the parents say.
In Chester County, Andrew Follett Jr. was expelled from Downingtown
East High School in March after school officials found a fishing
knife in the trunk of his off-campus car.
School authorities initially called the high school junior from
class on a tip about marijuana use. After searching his clothes and
his book bag, they looked inside his car, parked on a church lot
across the street.
They found two marijuana butts on the floor of the car - and a buck
knife in a tackle box in the trunk.
The school board expelled Follett permanently for possessing a
weapon, and local police cited him for disorderly conduct.
"They permanently changed the course of his life," said his father,
Andrew Follett Sr. "They circumvented his due-process rights. They
should not have that power. Your constitutional rights don't end at
the schoolhouse door."
Now the younger Follett is pursuing a GED and works at a local
department store, while his father intends to run for the school
board to change the policy.
In Upper Moreland, McCarthy has taken his expulsion in stride. He
has started classes at Montgomery County Community College, where he
will earn college credits while doing course work he needs to
graduate from Upper Moreland with his class in June 2006.
"At first I thought it was a horrible thing to happen," McCarthy
said. "But really, it's a great opportunity to start college early
and get a step ahead."
Curran still believes that the the Upper Moreland school board went
"Zero tolerance prevents adults in the community from cutting a kid
a break when he needs it," Curran said. "I know I would not be where
I am now if there weren't adults along the way who cut me a break."