WASHINGTON - The differences between common sense and blatant overreaction have never been more dramatic than those among school officials nationwide following the December massacre of 20 young students and six staffers in Newtown, Conn.
Two school districts -- one in Denver, another in Prince William County, Va. -- illustrate opposite approaches to improving school safety and reducing gun violence. Washington Post reporter Donna St. George described their approaches in two stories earlier this week.
Denver's public school system and police have worked out a new agreement so law enforcement won't have to get involved in minor incidents. It could spare a good many of the system's 84,000 students from significant penalties for harmless infractions that once would have brought a rap on the knuckles or a few hours of detention, if that.
Interestingly, the agreement is being promulgated in a metropolitan area that has seen more than its share of deaths from gun violence, including the Columbine High School slaughter in 1999 (15 dead, including the two assailants) and the Aurora movie theater shootings last July (12 dead and dozens wounded).
In Prince William County, a suburb of Washington, D.C., school officials have an absurd policy that turns "cowboys and Indians" playtime into a serious offense.
A second-grader earlier this month responded to a fellow student's imaginary bow-and-arrow attack by turning his hand into a pistol and pointing it at his pretend assailant -- an act committed by many a youngster for centuries. Whether he imitated the sound a gun firing is not known. But the boy's gesture was interpreted as a threat to school safety, and he was subjected to in-school suspension. (Wasn't the imaginary bow and arrow just as dangerous as the pointed finger?)
Not surprisingly, the boy's parents hired a lawyer and demanded that any record of this nonsense be expunged -- a reasonable request. The school's principal responded with a letter, but its wording left doubt about the extent of forgiveness. The letter didn't satisfy either the parents or their attorney. It didn't contain even "a whisper of conciliation," St. George quoted the lawyer as saying.
"Zero tolerance" policies can lead to such bizarre situations, calling into question not only the policies but also the common sense of those who enforce them. Certainly, you'd have to wonder about the fitness of a teacher or principal who perceives an 8-year-old's play-acting as a severe threat to life and limb.
Denver's approach seems far saner. The agreement between its police and school officials defines the kind of student offenses that should be handled by law officers and by educators. It "urges de-escalation of campus conflicts when possible," St. George wrote, and supports a policy of making amends for misconduct rather than initiating punishment.
Officials anticipate far less reliance on police action and out-of-school suspension.
"We believe that an effective restorative justice approach makes schools safer, helps keep our kids in school and on track to graduation, and makes kids learn from their mistakes and make them right," Denver school superintendent Tom Boasberg told
The Washington Post. Right on!
Obviously, every case is different. But Denver's is a common-sense solution. Magnifying a little boy's moment of make-believe into a threat "to harm self and others," and punishing him for it, is not.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.