Gannett News Service, June 12, 1999

When does school safety become oppression?

WASHINGTON - No one said Tawana Dawson used it to harm or threaten anyone, only to trim and clean her fingernails. But mere possession of the nail clipper with the 2-inch knife attachment was enough to get her kicked out of school in Pensacola, Fla., on a violation of the school's zero tolerance weapons policy.

Although Dawson's alleged weapon is a grooming tool readily available in drug stores, groceries and in airport sundry shops, school officials have recommended that the 15-year-old sophomore be expelled for one year - a sentence her parents call outrageous.

But Dawson hardly is the only American kid swept up in the zero tolerance dragnet that did not start with the April 20 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., but has only widened since.

In Chesapeake, Va., a 12-year-old boy was expelled for waving a stapler on the school bus as if it were a gun, and pointing it at the driver. He may not re-enroll before May 2000.

Elsewhere in Virginia, Kent McNew was dropped from his high school rolls because of his blue-dyed hair. According to the school board president, officials had to draw the line somewhere.

In Ohio, a 7-year-old girl was expelled for carrying a cap gun onto the school bus.

Also in Ohio, 11 students were suspended for contributing to a Web page with a gothic theme - the kind of Internet site reportedly frequented by the Columbine assailants.

Representing two of the suspended students in the Web site case, the Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said the school overstepped its authority to maintain order.

``What happened in Colorado was tragic,'' said ACLU legal director Raymond Vasvari. ``But it would be doubly tragic if those who took so many lives in Littleton were allowed to rob children across America of their right to free expression.''

Like the Ohio chapter, ACLU offices across the country report a flurry of complaints about disciplinary measures against students since the Colorado tragedy.

In a letter to every school superintendent in the region, Kansas and Western Missouri ACLU officials urged moderation in disciplinary measures, especially when the purported weapons are words.

``We recognize that the threats and violence should be addressed seriously by school officials, and we recognize schools have an obligation to protect its students,'' said the letter. ``But statements which are clearly hyperbole cannot constitute the basis for discipline.''

The letter cited a case where a male student was suspended for 10 days ``because he posted a personal Web page critical of his school and his town.''

``We have received many calls regarding suspension or discipline of students based on the clothes they wear, the literature they read and the music to which they listen,'' the officials explained.

The rash of suspensions and expulsions over expressions comes as the public demands more attention be paid to red flags that a young person might harbor violent fantasies or, worse, intentions.

School and law enforcement officials in Littleton have been criticized for overlooking possible warning signs that Eric Harris and Dylan Kleibold could be violent - their unusual attire, the music and video games they favored, and, in at least one alleged instance, a direct threat against a fellow student's life.

But what constitutes a red flag? That is the gray area educators, law enforcement officials and parents grapple with - the question that has led to a variety of trial-and-error answers.

By and large, the government has stayed out of it. It provides only one clear-cut rule: the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, requiring mandatory expulsion of any public school student with a gun, bomb, grenade, rocket or missile. Knives and fireworks, not to mention nail clippers and staplers, are not included in the federal ban, but many local districts have expanded the definition of what is threatening.

``Always take threats of violence or other intimidating statements seriously,'' Martin Semple, a Denver lawyer and vice chairman of the National Council of School Attorneys, advised the America Association of School Administrators.

Mindful of the fragile line between discipline and oppression of rights - plus a school's growing susceptibility to lawsuits - Semple's recommendations include:

- Search and seizure under certain conditions. ``Concern about illegal weapons or drugs on school grounds justify the search. Similarly, the use of metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs and hidden cameras are legitimate...''

- Dress codes. ``Whether on gang attire, Nazi insignia, trench coats or obscene messages, the emphasis should not be on the content or point of view of the speech of expression, but rather on the threat to discipline, order in the school, concerns regarding disruption and the threat to other students.''

- Informants. ``This includes teachers, parents and, especially, counselors ... Teachers should be particularly encouraged to report concerns they observe in homework, comments in class and skits or performances presented by students.''

But Nathan L. Essex, a dean at the University of Memphis, says schools should take pains to safeguard individual students' rights.

``When violent acts occur on school campuses nationwide, officials tend to act swiftly and aggressively,'' said Essex. ``Sometimes too swiftly and aggressively, without proper consideration regarding the constitutional rights of students.''

Essex warned that schools ``must resist the temptation'' to overreact. He urges schools to establish clear, legally distilled, well-circulated policies; to reserve extreme discipline for serious infractions that demand immediate action; and to afford a fair and impartial hearing to students facing even short-term suspension.

``We should treat students fairly, not because the courts mandate it, but because it is the right thing to do,'' said Essex. ``The seriousness of the situation, the student's past record of behavior and the urgency to act should be carefully considered prior to taking disciplinary action.''

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