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School System’s Zero-Tolerance Policy Generates Debate

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BALTIMORE (WJZ)— Punishment gone too far or appropriate protection for your kids? Several suspensions stemming from zero-tolerance policies have sparked outrage and a debate over discipline.

Mike Hellgren takes a closer look at the passion over punishment.

Recent high-profile suspensions have been over what schools have called dangerous weapons but some parents say how the rules are being enforced is simply ridiculous.

Cases of zero-tolerance discipline in schools across the region have generated outrage. A 6-year-old Cub Scout in Delaware was suspended for bringing his favorite camping utensil to school to eat his lunch.

“They shouldn’t bring dangerous weapons to school, but I don’t think that the punishment should be this bad,” said Zachary Christie, suspended over utensil.

Two lacrosse players in Easton were suspended for having small knives to fix their sticks in their bags.

“We got in trouble for a zero-tolerance policy that shouldn’t have been in place, and common sense really should have been in play,” said Casey Edsall, suspended lacrosse player.

Now, a Severna Park High student has been suspended for bringing pepper spray to school. Her mom says she kept it for her safety on her walk to campus.

School administrators say these are all dangerous weapons, and the policies are in place to keep classrooms safe. But are they going too far? That’s the question the state school board will take up next month.

Outgoing superintendent Dr. Nancy Grasmick is urging all schools to review policies. Their concern sparked after a member of the state board read about the case of Nick Stuban, a teenager in Virginia–who killed himself, distraught after being transferred schools for buying a legal pill that acts like marijuana.

“It’s gotten too punitive. It’s gotten too criminal in its orientation, ” said John Farrell, supporter of zero-tolerance reform.

Many zero-tolerance policies started after the Columbine shootings. The U.S. Department of Education found the most commonly targeted offenses include possession of firearms, other weapons, alcohol and violence.

And while good-intentioned, the lack of flexibility has parents like Laura Dennis–mother of one of the suspended Easton lacrosse players–hoping administrators will learn a lesson in tolerance.

“To charge him for having a two-inch pocket knife is ridiculous,” said Dennis. “It’s such a waste of everyone’s time and energy.” 

The lacrosse players are among those who have fought their suspensions. But even with the outrage– more than 500 comments alone on WJZ.COM since we first did their story– the school system hasn’t budged.

More than 80 percent of schools have zero-tolerance policies.

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