The Bizarre Consequences of "Zero Tolerance" Weapons Policies at Schools

Good article:

Zachary’s offense? [He’s six years old.] Taking a camping utensil that can serve as a knife, fork and spoon to school. He was so excited about recently joining the Cub Scouts that he wanted to use it at lunch. School officials concluded that he had violated their zero-tolerance policy on weapons, and Zachary was suspended and now faces 45 days in the district’s reform school.


“Something has to change,” said Dodi Herbert, whose 13-year old son, Kyle, was suspended in May and ordered to attend the Christina district’s reform school for 45 days after another student dropped a pocket knife in his lap.


The Christina school district attracted similar controversy in 2007 when it expelled a seventh-grade girl who had used a utility knife to cut windows out of a paper house for a class project.

The problem, of course, is that the global rule trumps any situational common sense, any discretion. But in granting discretion those in overall charge must trust people below them who have more detailed situational knowledge. It’s CYA security—the same thing you see at airports. Those involved in the situation can’t be blamed for making a bad decision as long as they follow the rules, no matter how stupid they are and how little they apply to the situation.

Posted on October 15, 2009 at 7:34 AM88 Comments


scottij October 15, 2009 8:04 AM

I had the same opinion about “zero tolerance” policies for a long time. But in this recent brouhaha, one of the articles I read mentioned that before they had zero tolerance policies, they still had the weapons bans, but that the rules were being enforced disproportionately against certain groups of students (i.e. African Americans) by some teachers and administrators. The zero tolerance strategy was a way to force a level playing field and avoid ethnic discrimination.

I don’t think zero tolerance is actually the best solution to that problem, but it actually made a lot more sense in light of that context. Given the problem of disproportionate enforcement, which can happen even unintentionally, I’m not sure how to get rid of the zero tolerance aspect.

Perhaps the problem isn’t the zero tolerance part of the policy, but the fact that the policy does not clearly enough define a “weapon” or allow for sensible exceptions that could be clearly and unambiguously enforced.

Mace Moneta October 15, 2009 8:07 AM

Let’s call these policies what they really are:

Zero Intelligence

No sense, racist/sexist enforcement for the mentally challenged.

Josh M October 15, 2009 8:13 AM

I truly am not sure how to respond to these. On one hand, yes, we as a nation want safe schools for students to learn, but on the other hand.. a cub scout utensil… seriously? (on a side note, you will be happy to hear the school board granted the boy early parol


I put it to the readers here, we’re all smart people… ok, well you are all smart people, what would be a better policy that would allow schools to act appropriately to security/safety incidents while not being a “Cover your arse” method?

Clive Robinson October 15, 2009 8:14 AM

It was drumed into my head at an early age that,

The obayance of rules is for fools and the guidence of wise men.

Which begs the question of which fools are in charge.

Gary October 15, 2009 8:35 AM

Two thoughts. First, is that there’s always discretion, even in zero-tolerance world. The teacher could have gone a far more informal route – “oh, this isn’t something you should have” not “Oh, you have a zero-tolerance knife weapon.” And once the teacher has the weapon – er, cub scout tool – in hand, the situation in no way can be seen as dangerous, and there is no ass to be covered any more. So they can end the story there – call the parents, remind them of the policy, and move on with life.

Second, is that there’s a difference between “punishment” and controlling the situation. The real foolishness is in thinking that punishment is a necessary followup to discovery, as if this has some kind of magical power to make things safer. Confiscation ought to do it for the first offense at least – probably in most cases. The supporters of the policy keep on saying “what if someone lost an eye?” Doesn’t confiscation alone solve that? If there’s clear malicious intent (and it’s pretty obvious in most of these cases, I imagine), or repeated breaking of the no-weapon rule, then you can punish that. It’s not that complicated.

wiredog October 15, 2009 8:47 AM

I think scottij, above, got it right. They need better definition of “weapon”. At least in the first case, that of the 6 year old.

In the case of the 13 year old, why was he suspended if another student dropped the knife in his lap? Why not the other student? I suspect something has been left out of the account.

bethan October 15, 2009 8:47 AM

this has been happening with increasing regularity, and it’s incredibly irritating.

the school in florida that didn’t release kids until 730 at night because of a lightning storm – despite the parents that were waiting outside, and being told ‘no,’ because they had a policy that said they couldn’t release kids until 30 minutes after severe weather clears. crazy that they did that, and crazy that the parents let them.

or the eagle scout, this week, who had a pocket knife in his car and was suspended for 20 days.

RonK October 15, 2009 8:50 AM

The problem with zero-tolerance rules is that they introduce other weaknesses (in this case, easy framing of students) into the system, in a way similar to other inflexible security policies introducing DoS weaknesses.

Whether the tradeoff is worthwhile depends on the particular circumstances involved (i.e., a school where violent use of smuggled weapons is rampant vs. one with practically no problem at all with real violence). In most cases, I think, the problem arises when rules designed for “worst cases” are dictated for whole school districts which include schools with very varied situations.

Andre LePlume October 15, 2009 8:55 AM

Aside from the case with the little kid, there was at almost the same time an even better one: a 17 yr-old high school student, Eagle Scout, already been through Army basic training, kept a basic survival kit in his car: blanket, food, fire-starting materials, pocket knife. Drove car to school, left materials in locked car. Principal finds out, kid gets mandatory 5-day suspension, which is boosted to 20 days by school board. School board says it added the extra 15 to be “uniform” in application of policy. IOW, if a meth-head just out of juvenile hall got 15 days for his knife, they feel the need to apply the rule “equally” to the eagle scout who already has received awards from his town for saving a life yet was “caught” with a knife that was given him by his grandpa — the police chief of a nearby town!!

“Only in America”

HJohn October 15, 2009 9:07 AM

@: “The problem, of course, is that the global rule trumps any situational common sense, any discretion.”

Two points that are contradictory, but non the less of concern.

  1. Even if one has situational discretion and makes the right choice, we do live in a lawsuit happy time.
  2. Point #1 does not change the fact that this strict absolutism is costly and dangerous.

I see it all the time in my profession of governmental auditing (I don’t audit people, I audit government functions). There is such strict adherence at times in the wrong situations that:
1. is designed to protect against consequencs, bad PR, findings, etc., no matter how unreasonable in the circumstance.
2. Costs a great deal in the way of money, resources, and time, and even functionality and security (one minute wasted on something unreasonable is a minute not spent on something useful).

I think Bruce said it simply and better than I have, I may even have to steal his verbage. I guess it’s easier to say “but those or the rules” than defend ones judgment call.

Louis October 15, 2009 9:15 AM

In my mind, all, every and any security effort (which is what this is right?) should have an awareness program.

Children not even 7 years old, how can anyone even pretend they know the difference between right and wrong. And with today’s blurriness on that question, might have to raise that a couple of years.

Raise awareness people, tell the kids what this is all about. And this is a school, right? Educate them a little.

First offence, you must go through the awareness program again. Ok, maybe a little suspension to satisfy political interests, but not the harsh(est) penalty right away. A little common sense says you can penalise gradually, raising the bar on repeat offenders only.

This is not zero-tolerance, it is zero-intelligence (wink to Mace). And very bad management (for a school)…

Fred P October 15, 2009 9:23 AM

I wonder what that school system does with martial arts students that register their hands as weapons. Perhaps they have to have all their classes outside?

Jim Shilliday October 15, 2009 9:34 AM

Embarrassment sometimes helps. The other night, Zachary’s school board met and amended the policy as applied to kids in kindergarten and first grade. Zachary got off with time served.

bob October 15, 2009 9:34 AM

OK, they have to have zero tolerance because they cant enforce fairness? So treat the kids like morons because the administrators actually are?

This reminds of my alma mater, nearby “Cha-Ching” State University. CCSU was going to implement a requirement that the students be able to speak and understand english. I objected because if the TEACHERS are not held to that requirement (and I can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt they are not) then the students who merely put their own money at risk, should not either.

Well, as long as there is going to be no tolerance for any weapon, lets carry that to its (il)logical conclusion: You must suspend any student if they have in their possession or access to anything that has ever been used in recorded history to kill any human being. That would certainly include at a minimum: bombs, guns, knives, airplanes, motorcycles, cars, bicycles, wheels, baseball bats, baseballs, footballs, basketballs, nets, musical instruments, fuel, electricity, kinetic energy, potential energy, mass, wire, string, rope, staples, calendars, maps, notebooks, paper, drugs [prescription or OTC], pens, pencils, clothing, food, liquids, paint, bricks, lumber, nails, mortar, shingles, glue, paste [even edible], cement, desks, hair, excrement [urine already having been covered in liquids above], markers, chairs, tables, containers, trees [those which are not already converted to lumber; covered above], flowers, windows, rocks, dirt, sand, coathangers, timepieces, computer equipment massing more than 1oz, nails [as in toe/finger], etc…

Then since there would never be any students in any school anywhere who were not on suspension [unless they were already dead I guess], we could save a ton of money by firing all the teachers and most [but not all, since inconceivably there are people employed in schools whose duties would not be affected by the total absence of students or teachers] administrators.

Mr. Cluebat. October 15, 2009 9:54 AM

Okay, y’all are clueless here. You don’t understand the nature of human psychology or how this game is played.

There was a good discussion just recently over on Slashdot:

That covered office politics, but it’s applicable here.

In a nutshell, public schools are intensely political environments. Those who advance to upper administrative roles play the politics game very well. They’re ruthless, promoting incompetents into management underneath them and barbarically eliminating any perceived threat.

If you let them have power over you, they will do whatever they want to you that best serves their own interests.

You will not fair well.

These are people who make their careers out of standing on an ever higher pile of bodies of those who got in their way. Or who just crossed their path. That’s you!

As a student, you need backing of your parents (or other adults) or you have no traction what-so-ever.

The optimal winning path is to convince these assholes that it serves their best interests to let this drop quietly. That happens every day. You just don’t hear about it.

Newspapers and public shaming are the last recourse of an incompetent student/parent. That’s why you read these stories. That’s why these things often end badly. The assholes in charge have covered their own ass. They’ve set up someone else, no doubt a up-and-coming genuinely decent human being whom they rightly perceive as a threat, to take the fall. And they know, in most cases, in a matter of weeks, it will all blow over and be forgotten.

What the parent ought to do is to throw a hissy fit. Seriously. Get in their face. Scream. Shout. Make it plain that the parent will spend whatever money and time it takes to get that asshole fired. Get the lawyers involved. Sue the school. Print up fliers. Pass them out to the students to take home to their parents. Make up T-shirts for the kids to wear. Stage a protest. TV-camera crews love that sort of publicity.

Most important of all: Don’t target the guy who’s making this bad decision. Target his boss. Go after the boss’s job. It’s politics all the way to the top baby. When an underling threatens the boss, the boss removes him.

If that means running for school board, do it! It’s certainly within the realm of possibility for an eagle scout to oust such an asshole. Go door to door in the asshole’s neighborhood. Or his friends neighborhood. It will get back to him!

These people are political animals. They will move heaven and earth to cover themselves. That’s your leverage. That’s the angle to play.

Steve J October 15, 2009 9:58 AM

My favourite part of this story is that the camping knife is being treated as a weapon which means that at lunchtime the school issues every child with a “dangerous weapon”

Bryan Feir October 15, 2009 10:06 AM

@Mr. Cluebat:

Two things.

First, this ties in well with one of my own observations of academic politics from back when I was in University: there are people whose sole purpose in life is to find a small enough pond that they can be a big fish in it. Once they have found it, they will defend their position all out of proportion (and even in inverse proportion) to its actual worth, largely out of fear that they will never find a place to be a big fish again.

Second, pedantic misspelling: the word is that you will not ‘fare’ well.

Elliott October 15, 2009 10:08 AM

I came across this many times when I volunteered in the judicial system. Some kid would get ticketed just for having a pocket knife in his backpack that could really only be described as a letter opener.

This also applied to fights in the school. If a fight broke out, the police and officials would simply ticket everyone in the area of the fight. I would get kids that were in the wrong place at the wrong time that had nothing to do with the fight. It was frustrating for the kids and the parents.

Yet, none of this seemed to have any effect on the students who would actually get into the fights. Zero-Tolerance sounds good, but is inane in practice.

jerome October 15, 2009 10:08 AM

From of french point of view it’s amazing thing. The problem (for me) is the relationship between american and weapons. It’s normal to have gun and more at house. So, for a young boy, it’s normal to use knife and another weapons. You fall to extreme joke, camping knife has a weapon ! I think (but it will be very hard and very long job) the best way is to explain weapons are not utile, and forbidden it. But for today, it’s too late. It’s crazy.

Jerry October 15, 2009 10:27 AM

I’m sad to say in this case I live in the school district in questions (but boy am I happy that my kids are long out of school).

As some others have noted, the idea of this was to have one set of “rules” applicable across all situations with all aged kids etc…to avoid a lawsuit. The thought being if it’s all the “same” nothing to be sued about.

All this points out to me is that “common sense” isn’t so common and they have come to realize that they can’t rely on their staff or admins to make an apropriate decision so they took the decision making out of their hands.

BTW, changing the rule “on the fly” is seldom a wise thing to do, but that is precisely what they did due to the outrage over this situation.

anon today October 15, 2009 10:28 AM

My highschool (which I attended only a handful of years ago) had similar “zero tolerance” policies. The fascinating part of these policies is the numerous gaping loopholes they always seem to have.

I was a member of the science olympiad club and rocketry club. I can’t even count the number of times I walked around the crowded hallways of my school carrying exacto knifes and box cutters without teachers and administrators even thinking twice about it. Meanwhile perfectly harmless kids got nailed for bringing butterknifes to lunch to make their sandwiches.

Now granted, I was what you’d describe as a “nerd” so teachers looking the other way could be expected and the knifes where technically for school work. I was not however pristine, had been in a handful of minor conflicts with other students and teachers. Furthermore there was not any sort of “check out system” for the knifes in question. If you wanted one, you took one. I could go into a whole different rant about how “gifted” programs create a class of untouchables that can get away with just about anything, but that’s a whole different topic.

Zero tolerance is nothing more than a tool used by incompetant administrators to stroke their own egos by screwing over innocent kids (where politics allow it).

Jonathan October 15, 2009 10:29 AM

For the record, not every school has staff this stupid. Some idiot kid brought an unloaded revolver to show his friends at school. Rather than freaking out and locking down the whole town, the police had a sit down with the kid and his parents, explained what a dumb decision it was (even if it was unloaded), and that was that. No lockdown, no SWAT team, just a correction of common sense. In the case of the six-year old and his swiss army knife, though, it sounds more like the faculty are the ones needing a lesson in common sense.

john greco October 15, 2009 10:35 AM


So if I understand your point correctly, you think the issue is that Americans see firearms as utilities, similar to knives. Therefore when they do ban weapons, they end up banning utilities (camping knives) as well?

I can’t say I never thought of it that way before but it does certainly make sense.

Luke October 15, 2009 10:48 AM

My favorite tidbit from the article:

“a third-grade girl was expelled for a year because her grandmother had sent a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it. The teacher called the principal — but not before using the knife to cut and serve the cake.”

André October 15, 2009 10:54 AM

@Josh M:
Reading your question I was immediately reminded of how things like that were handled when I was at school (though this was pre 9/11, but none the matter, I somehow survived those uncivilized years!). Whenever something was found that was not allowed in school (such as knives, toys – hey we had to concentrate on the teacher! -, etc.), the teacher took it for the rest of the schoolday. Afterwards it was returned to you combined with a small note to be signed by the parents, telling them of your deeds. And hey, it worked, because parents took care of the punishment back in those days! So only few cases of school-rule-enforcement where left to the teachers which they were able to discuss with other teachers before setting the punishment.
And as I said: we all survived it …

Rich Wilson October 15, 2009 10:59 AM

Zero tolerance is a way for a higher level of bureaucracy to micro manager a lower level.

What bugs me in this case is that Zachary only got a reprieve ( after his cute face made national news. It’s great he’s not going to reform school for 45 days, but I just wonder how many other cases never make the headline. What we need isn’t for Zachary (or any individual) to get an exception, we need a better rule.

Lenore at Freerange Kids has a few more cases. Along with Zachery and the Eagle scout, is the case of canned food not being allowed on the bus.

McCoy Pauley October 15, 2009 11:19 AM

Hey, let’s not allow children to urinate while at school. They could store it in a jar and use it to make urea-based explosives. And what about those dessicated french fries that could be whittled into shanks? And, let’s face it, EVERYBODY is avoiding the issue of paper cuts.

Sweet Mother of God, is there ANYBODY left in a “position of authority” who has the brains of a gerbil??

Vic October 15, 2009 11:23 AM

Perhaps a hustling attorney will persuade the family to sue the School Board for damages and get the matter before a judge. Amazing how cub scouts and ‘regular’ kids can get screwed over by the idiots in the school systems, yet vicious murderers, rapists, and the like seem to have little problem finding ‘mercy’. I hate to suggest clogging the judicial system with such nonsense, yet monetary consequences to stupid policies would seem the only impetus to change them.

Michael Ash October 15, 2009 11:26 AM


You say that there’s always discretion, but this may not be really true.

I don’t know the details of this policy, but it’s at least possible (and fits my “school administrators are idiots” philosophy on life) that the zero-tolerance policy not only covers students, but extends to teachers who fail to report incidents. A teacher who doesn’t report a utility knife to the administration could very well be fired or at least punished if it’s ever discovered. Maybe that’s not the case here, but it could be.

Dan October 15, 2009 11:46 AM

If you read the update at (linked from the story above), it says says “The Christina School Board voted unanimously to amend the Code of Conduct for the 2009-2010 school year to allow individual schools and school administrators more discretion when deciding disciplinary actions for students in Kindergarten and First Grade. ”

So, in some cases, there’s now more room for discretion. As they go on to point out, this is only for the youngest kids, though.

paul October 15, 2009 12:15 PM

Of course, discretion has its own problems. As “anon today” pointed out, teachers given discretion may use it in ways that reinforce whatever social hierarchy they’re interested in enforcing. Probably everyone commenting here has some anecdote about the bully or the jock or the favored nerd who got a free pass because a teacher or administrator thought that was the right thing to do, while some kid who didn’t have the right qualities got tagged.

Should that eagle scout have been let off for being an eagle scout with a family member in law enforcement, for example? No. He should have been let off because the knife was in a kit in a locked car.

Pat Cahalan October 15, 2009 12:24 PM

@ Bruce

Those involved in the situation can’t be blamed for making
a bad decision as long as they follow the rules, no matter
how stupid they are and how little they apply to the situation.

Sure they can. Here, I’ll blame them. They’re part of the problem.

@ Michael

A teacher who doesn’t report a utility knife to the administration
could very well be fired or at least punished if it’s ever discovered.

Tough patootie. Professional ethics codes are there for a reason. Here’s the NEA’s :

I can see at least a violation of 1, 4, 5, and possibly 8.

Everybody involved should be censured, black marks on their records, possibility of promotion or pay advancement suspended or revoked for a sufficient length of time. Everyone on the school board who voted for a no-tolerance policy should be forced to resign for putting their employees in an ethically untenable position.

This is flatly ridiculous. The entire reason why ethics codes exist is to empower the individual to turn down an “unlawful order”, in the parlance of the military code.

If I was a teacher in this school district, I would have been raising holy hell about this since it was implemented… and if I happened to be the one to find the offending item, I would have quietly pocketed it and returned it after school. If someone tried to discipline me for it, I would raise holy hell about that, too.

It’s part of the teacher’s responsibility to protect the students from idiocy. That includes idiocy in the bureaucracy.

HJohn October 15, 2009 12:34 PM

@Pat Cahalan: “Everybody involved should be censured, black marks on their records, possibility of promotion or pay advancement suspended or revoked for a sufficient length of time. ”

I have to disagree with that. While I don’t condone the actions, it is unfair to create a no-win situation for people. By no win, I mean if they break the rules they in trouble for breaking the rules, and if they don’t break the rules they are in trouble because the rules are stupid.

Reminds me of the situation IT was in with Y2K — if things broke they were incompetent, if they didn’t they were alarmists wasting money. I also see the same thing in security–if something goes wrong blame IT for not exerting the resources to prevent it, if nothing goes wrong blame IT for wasting resources to prevent a non-threat. The list can go on and on.

Decision makers should be permitted some room to make judgment calls. Just like a cop may exercise discretion in when to issue a citation (the higher tendency to give warnings if someone is cute, notwithstanding). But we can’t hold someone accountable for strick adherence to dumb rules when we don’t allow room for them to make judgment calls. That’s like blaming someone for driving too slow when cops give tickets for going 1 mph over.

KCinDC October 15, 2009 12:40 PM

I’ve never understood how zero-tolerance policies are supposed to avoid lawsuits. When they result in idiocies like this, then doesn’t the school board get sued for having the ridiculous zero-tolerance policy? Do the courts somehow magically throw out lawsuits when they hear the words “zero-tolerance”?

HJohn October 15, 2009 12:51 PM

@KCinDC: “I’ve never understood how zero-tolerance policies are supposed to avoid lawsuits. When they result in idiocies like this, then doesn’t the school board get sued for having the ridiculous zero-tolerance policy? Do the courts somehow magically throw out lawsuits when they hear the words “zero-tolerance”?”

Not really. You can’t sue someone for following a dumb rule from those above them, but you can sue them if you can make the case their judgment was poor. If their judgment, no matter how sound, violates some rule or policy then it is pretty easy to make the case that “it shouldn’t have happened.”

My uncle, when he was 15, in the country, drove his dad’s car (with his dad in the passenger seat). A careless driver ran a stop sign and hit them. They had right of way, and it was the other drivers fault. However, becaue of the law that he wasn’t licensed to drive, it became his fault because “if he wasn’t driving it wouldn’t have happened anyway.” Same concept.

Shane October 15, 2009 12:53 PM

Um, I’ve got these beat twice. Why the hell wasn’t I newsworthy?

First: best friend, expelled at 17 for having a plastic rifle akin to a GI Joe accessory (you know, the 3in tall pose-able action figure GI Joes) during lunch hour. He found it on the ground somewhere and was mindlessly toying with it when a bouncer walked by (that’s what we called them anyhow, school security/AA member). He has an otherwise spotless record behavior-wise, and had a 3+ GPA. Expelled on the spot.

Second: Me, three days before graduation. I was late for class one morning, walked in through a side door, which during school hours is monitored heavily by the bouncers, and was asked to empty out my backpack (which, due to the zero-tolerance BS at the time, right after the Columbine shootings, I was forced to comply with). So, he emptied out my bag, and unraveled a dense grouping of pencils and paint brushes in my bag (I was in a number of art classes over the years) that was wrapped tightly with rubber bands. Among the hundreds of items, there was an exacto knife with a plastic cap over the blade. I was immediately brought to the principle’s office and expelled on the spot. It didn’t matter one bit that I was A) enrolled in an Art class that required it as one of the tools necessary to complete the course, B) scheduled to be in that class roughly an hour later, and C) received the exacto knife FROM MY ART TEACHER in exchange for the $1.00 fee or whatever for not having one already.

Shane October 15, 2009 12:59 PM

Also, I believe I’ve told this story before, haha.

At the same school, right after Columbine / Zero-tolerance… they even stopped giving away plastic butter knives with bagels, toast, etc. Considered them ‘dangerous weapons’.

Oddly enough sharpened number 2 pencils and bic pens were still allowed???

It must take an incredible amount of effort to remain that ignorant long enough to make it to a seat of authority allowed to instill policies this idiotic.

HJohn October 15, 2009 1:00 PM

@Shane at October 15, 2009 12:53 PM

Terrible stories.

When I was in early grade school, I joined Cub Scouts, and they put us into two packs. I misunderstood which pack I was in and wore my Cub Scout uniform on the wrong day. After school, two kids from the other pack confronted me because I wore my uniform on “their pack’s day.” In full view of a teacher, I tried to walk away. They jumped me, one grabbed me by my wrist, and the other by my ankles and tried to carry me outside. The teach, who saw the entire incident, including me trying to walk away, put all 3 of us in detention.

My mother threw a fit to the principal who defended it as them having no tolerance for any fighting (I don’t think zero tolerance was a buzz word yet). My mother said that I had his permission to attack him, and then she would demand he be fired for fighting with a student. He told her that was ridiculous, and she said that was the point, but under his rules he would be “fighting.”

EdT. October 15, 2009 1:03 PM

I experienced a similar situation at the airport in Minneapolis/St Paul years ago (before 9/11.) I was going through the security checkpoint, and emptied my pockets. The security drone called the local cop and his supervisor over, and wanted me taken into custody for having my spare change stuffed into a baby sock (one of those that was orphaned by the dryer.) He claimed it was a “blackjack”, and I should be arrested and prosecuted for taking a forbidden weapon into the airport. I asked the supervisor if they routinely arrested everyone who was carrying change and wearing socks, as any one of these folks could construct their own blackjack. When the supervisor said no, that ended that. However, the security drone insisted that, in the future, I would be required to carry a “coin purse” instead of putting my change into a sock.

I haven’t been back to that airport since.


HJohn October 15, 2009 1:08 PM

When I was 10, back in 1984, a transformers toy of mine set off a metal detector in San Antonio. Someone actually interrogated me as to whether it could be transformed into a gun.

My grandmother asked if he really believed a 10 year old, flying by himself, was going to take over a plane with a toy robot.

JT Pennington October 15, 2009 1:18 PM

@ Andre LePlume
I heard about that situation from my friend. My friend also told me that the kid was accepted by West Point and has been worried that this situation may knock him out of being able to go to the academy. I havent found anything online about that situation in particular so I dont know if thats true or just hearsay.
Seriously, I’m pretty sure an Eagle Scout knows enough that he could kill a person rather effectively with random objects he might find lying about the school grounds. His hands could be used as a weapon. Does have to have those removed before school? What about kids who take martial arts?

Stupidity abounds today.

Heron October 15, 2009 1:20 PM

@wiredog: “In the case of the 13 year old, why was he suspended if another student dropped the knife in his lap? Why not the other student? I suspect something has been left out of the account.”

I doubt there was any need to mention what should be obvious.

True story: a few years ago at my parents’ local middle school, a girl was beat up by three other girls in the locker room. She was suspended for trying to fight back in self-defense.

Do I really need to mention that the other three girls were also suspended? IMO, it’s not relevant to the point, so there’s no need.

Andre LePlume October 15, 2009 1:47 PM


The kid had not been accepted at West Point (IIRC, you need a Congressional appointment). However, when I checked back on the facts before posting my comment, an update said that the admissions director of West Point called the kid (!) and told him the knife thing would not be a negative. Pretty cool that they’d take the time to do that, IMO.

Chelloveck October 15, 2009 1:49 PM

@Shane: Sounds like those incidents were newsworthy. The question is, did you or anyone else go to the press with them? Reporters have to get their tips from somewhere.

C October 15, 2009 1:59 PM

Someone up above said zero tolerance was introduced to level the racial playing field.

I don’t get that philosophy at all. Teachers and faculty can still selectively enforce this rule against anyone they want. Or choose to not enforce it for that matter. I knew teachers that have summed other kids up in a glance and grudge was immediately formed. But hey, its already been said, zero tolerance trumps common sense (and makes a fantastic cover for bad intentions).

It’ll always be a load of rubbish anyway given that numerous objects could be used to harm other people. Pencils, staplers, the straps on a school bag, a rock from the school yard, etc.

Steve Parker October 15, 2009 2:00 PM

“this has been happening with increasing regularity, and it’s incredibly irritating. ”

Sorry to be irritating, but regularity must be regular; I think that you mean increasing frequency

grande mocha October 15, 2009 2:13 PM

  1. As Bruce says, this is idiotic CYA security designed to prevent lawsuits.

  2. However, the primary problem seems to be that the definition of “weapon” is rather arbitrary. I personally believe that in strong enough hands a pencil is a lethal weapon. However, in the hands of a 7 year old kid, a Cub-scout eating utensil is certainly no weapon.

  3. Sounds to me like the solution to this problem is for the outraged voters to replace the superintendent and the idiots on the school board.

HJohn October 15, 2009 2:27 PM

@grande mocha: “the definition of “weapon” is rather arbitrary”

I think it’s sad that the word “weapon” cannot stand on its own. It can’t always be defined by its design, sometimes it has to be defined by its use. But it is something a reasonable person, especially someone in a position of authority, should recognize.

* A fork being used to eat lunch is not a weapon
* A fork being thrust at someone’s jugular is being used as a weapon

I mean, duh. If people can’t make that distinction, they are not fit to be in a decision making capacity.

Pat Cahalan October 15, 2009 3:00 PM

@ HJohn

While I don’t condone the actions, it is unfair to create
a no-win situation for people. By no win, I mean if they
break the rules they in trouble for breaking the rules,
and if they don’t break the rules they are in trouble
because the rules are stupid.

I can sympathize with the sympathy, but let’s face some troubling realities.

1) No win situations are common, regardless of cause.

2) You don’t get to reprogram the simulator to get out of them when they happen.

3) In a complex scenario where fault can be distributed, if nobody is forced to take consequences then there is no motivation to change behavior.

If a teacher, who is a member of the NEA, and has signed off on that code of ethics is presented with a situation where there is a conflict of ethics and law, it’s their responsibility to contest the code or the law. If they fail to do so and then get themselves into a quandary, they can’t just pretend that they shouldn’t have already seen that there was a problem and claim no guilt because they haven’t already done something to address the issue.

If your state, or locality, or school board passes some sort of school policy that conflicts with your stated code of ethics, you have a responsibility to participate in fixing it. If you fail to do so, you bear some of the fault, period. “Just following orders” is not a defense of unethical conduct. If you get stuck in a conflict of ethics and policy and you just follow the policy, you’re not covered.

Mark R October 15, 2009 3:22 PM

The whole “Zero Tolerance” concept is an excuse not to think. It’s like saying, “there are a lot of fine distinctions and problematic concepts involved with this issue; if we try to consider them, we are bound to go astray. So let’s just pretend they don’t exist and let the chips fall where they may.”

HJohn October 15, 2009 3:23 PM

@Pat Cahalan at October 15, 2009 3:00 PM

I dont’ disagree. I think this is a problem when someone on high hears of something then passes some absolutist mandate (such as “zero tolerance”) to micro manage things from a macro level.

BF Skinner October 15, 2009 4:26 PM

School is the enemy of the cool and pocket spork/knives are cool. Odd…when I was six we were taking switchblades (pre-gravity knife) to school ’cause they were cool…and the school freaked out then too.

Bob Roberts October 15, 2009 5:10 PM

Surely some of those involved in this are public officials. Next election their inability to distinguish weapons from tools should be pointed out. Would you vote for someone that stupid?

John Campbell October 15, 2009 8:48 PM

One problem, mentioned above, is the likelihood of capricious enforcement. (Look at how the PATRIOT act has suffered from mission creep like the RICO act has.)

Humans are, by their nature, inconsistent…

Given consistent rules the interpretation of these rules will be inconsistent. (Look at any “Fundamentalist” interpretation of “rules” and how they apply.)


We are so screwed.

Andrew October 15, 2009 11:48 PM

Like it or not, ethic discrimination was the reason to enforce a zero tolerance policy. And it only takes one cute-faced white kid and their parents crying bloody murder to the media to repeal the policy.

What I would like to know is how many other kids were suspended under this rule before? And how many of them are black vs white vs hispanics vs asians? Do they get a letter of appology from the school board now that they repealed this policy?
If this is the first case they suspended a kid due to this policy, fine, repeal it. If it is not, all other kids who got unfair treatment should have thier suspension records expunged.

Also, you wouldve think that the school board would consider cases like these before enforcing such a strict policy.

Clive Robinson October 16, 2009 12:10 AM

@ HJohn,

‘I think it’s sad that the word “weapon” cannot stand on its own. It can’t always be defined by its design, sometimes it has to be defined by its use.’

There is a gap in your logic here.

What these children etc are being suspended over is not use of an “object”.

What they are being suspended for is having “possesion” of an “object” in an area where it is prohibited.

There are two issues that arise,

1, The definition of “possesion”.

2, The definition of what “objects” are prohibited.

In both cases the definitions are subject to interpretation by the person who is nominaly forfilling the parental role whilst the child is in the prohibition area.

Just about any “object” can be used as a “weapon” (ask a prison guard if you have doubts).

For instance if I pick you up and drop you on your head on the paved play area and you are injured you have suffered a “blunt force insult” to your head. Likewise I would have achived a similar result by dropping a paving slab on your head from an appropriate hight.

However the first is concevably an “accident” due to rough play, the second arguably one of “asault”.

Which brings up the question of “intent”.

Again “intent” is a definition subject to interpretation.

And this is the real issue “interpretation” it is a subjective issue and therefor is subject to perception which the law has an informal standard for “what is reasonable to a man on a Clapham Omnibus”.

Unfortunatly this informal standard lacks what the armed forces call “situational awareness”. This calls for the use of both experiance as well as ethics.

As ordinary individuals we may or may not have experiance, but we do expect those who do to demonstrate ethical behaviour and importantly to give a reasonable account of why they arived at the choice they made.

As history has shown in the past and currently ethics are often subsumed against more immediate concerns.

Two currently related asspects that demonstrate this are “war crimes” and “war on terror”. If you ask different people you will get diferent answers as to which is which and why. And as you would expect each answer will show a degree of the persons life experiances.

Roger October 16, 2009 12:44 AM

As an educator I see this as a really, really bad example, especially for young impressionable minds. Here we are telling them how important it is to get an education and do well in school, except that some arbitrary rule can get them sent to a reform school for two months. Do you think that child is ever going to respect the educational system again? How about his friends? Most likely they will become High School Droupouts, if not for the loss of faith in dishonest teachers, if not by withdrawing from the shame of the incident, then as a reaction to being hurt. They will react to arbitrary BS as you and I would, by getting away from it at their earliest opportunity.

Shame on those educators. Used to be teachers cared for their students…

TheBigBoss October 16, 2009 1:29 AM

Remember how Jesus allowed people to do things that were forbidden by the law, saying:

Law is made for man and not man made for the law.

This is exactly the same situation as here.

Law and fear of punishment by superiors is eating man’s brain and heart at these stupid times.

averros October 16, 2009 5:06 AM

It’s not about “tolerance”, “safety” or anything like that.

It’s all about obedience and indoctrinating young people to follow the rules no matter how insane these rules are. Makes them good sheep when they grow up.

Public education is evil.

bob October 16, 2009 7:50 AM

@Clive Robinson: The problem is that “intent” is being codified OUT of US law. Formerly most laws were such that your intent to do harm was critical to prosecution.

But the US is suffering from a plague of non-responsibility. We are no longer responsible for anything we do. it was always someone else’s fault. Our parents, society, a TV show we watched. Every one of us is a victim in everything we do. Consequently, since we have no ability to control ourselves, it must be the fault of the inanimate objects around us that cause us to do things. That is why we ban knives, guns, water bottles, whatever. If we have no evil objects, then we will not do evil. And, since nothing we do is our own responsibility, how can there even be the concept of “intent”.

kangaroo October 16, 2009 8:50 AM

HHJohn: I have to disagree with that. While I don’t condone the actions, it is unfair to create a no-win situation for people. By no win, I mean if they break the rules they in trouble for breaking the rules, and if they don’t break the rules they are in trouble because the rules are stupid.

Well, that’s the problem. Everyone can always “blame a higher authority”, all the way up the judiciary.

So who’s left to blame? Congress? SCOTUS? No, we’re all responsible, to the extent of our power. We all have to take some of the knocks, and pay some of the price.

Otherwise, you have an authoritarian system, where the buck is always passed to the fuehrer, who of course is then insulated from any costs (how could he know?) So, CIA guys get immunity as long as they follow orders — but the order makers are insulated because they’re just giving legal opinions — and the executive has protection via privilege and power.

No, no, no — we’re going to be in this hell-hole of zero-tolerance authoritarian BS as long as we think it’s “unfair” to hold folks responsible for following stupid orders. That’s the only place this battle can be fought.

The bureaucratization of all thought and responsibility (for “fairness sake” as scottj claimed at the beginning of the thread) is what’s slowly killing us, costing us massively in an overgrowth of administrators, killing true security in the name of theater, and in general undermining the culture. It’s what the simple-minded call the loss of “responsibility” — it’s the loss of power outside of bureaucracy, which then diffuses all responsibility and power to no where.

HJohn October 16, 2009 9:06 AM

@kangaroo at October 16, 2009 8:50 AM

I think you make a good point. I also am starting to see this as responsibility that ends up going in cicles. The lower level makes poor judgment based on the rules (i.e., zero tolerance), and it goes up the ladder to where the rule was made (macro level), who in turn blames the people at the micro level and makes more one-size fits all rules, which in turn fosters more poor decisions blamed on the rules.

One thing I find frustrating is people also can’t accept that sometimes good, intelligent people, will make different decisions. An example is a paramedic or EMT in an emergency situation deciding who to help first. If anything goes wrong, there are meetings, hearings, investigations, wrongful death suits rather than accepting a competant worker may only have been able to save one of the two victims.

Clive Robinson October 16, 2009 11:20 AM

@ Bob,

“The problem is that “intent” is being codified OUT of US law. Formerly most laws were such that your intent to do harm was critical to prosecution.”

As is the case in the UK.

The official reason given here is that “to many obviously guilty criminals where able to hire the best of legal support at tax payers expense to get them of on technicalities”.

Thus we now even alow “hearsay” to be used against a person in a criminal trial proceading as “evidence of charecter”. This process is so open to abuse by the “crown agents” and is so stacked against the defendent that it cannot possibly be seen to be justice of any kind what so ever. Especialy as the same right is with held from the defendent for those acting on or for the defense. Thus if there is evidence that a person presenting hearsay is a known liar etc the defendent is not alowed to present this against their accuser in the hearing…

The real reason for this tearing up of a thousand years of sound practice, “political imperative” and money.

Politicians have to be seen to be “tough on crime” even though every piece of credible evidence sugests as a policy it is very counter productive in that it actualy encorages more crime and often more extream crime.

Thus people seen to be “getting away with it” on technical grounds is bad for a politician. However an analysis tends to sugest that it is actualy the very poor performance of the “crown agents” that leads to these issues. And in general just as many (if not more) innocent people are cleared by the technicalities as “guilty getting away with it”.

The truth for politicians is embarising as it makes them apear mindless and weak with no insight or clarity of purpose verging on imbecilic behaviour.

In the UK there is something called “legal aid” it is financial assistance to help a person get competant help in defending themselves against criminal prosecution.

However it has always been “means tested” which made it unavailable to the majority of home owning or above averagely waged people.

However the current UK Gov has decided to take it a couple of steps further.

The first trick was to cap the rate payable to your legal representatives (but not that to the crown agents). Thus legal expertise in most cases followed the money and was not available to the “common man” trying to defend themselves.

But that did not stop those legal representatives who did it out of personal conviction or belife that they where defending an inocent person, and thus would accept the low rate of renumeration.

Thus the second trick was to remove travel compensation for your legal representatives. Thus those few experts who where prepared to work for the meager amounts, had their ability to travel to needy defendants removed.

These tricks had a very visable effect of limiting choice to the defendent.

But this is still not enough people are still acording to the Politicos escaping conviction and publicaly so.

The current financial trick being touted is “competative tendering” or a “Dutch auction” where legal representatives have to bid for the work and the lowest bid wins. The defendant has no choice but to go with the lowest bid, or go it alone.

Likewise expenses for others such as “technical experts” etc is being squeazed more and more.

Then lets say you are in the Goverment imposed “money trap” and take out a loan on your property to try to raise the money either to defend yourself or pay any fines etc.

Guess what you have commited a criminal offence by encumbering the assets that might be subject to confiscation should the crown agents decide they might possibly have been obtained via the proceads of crime… which by the way is so ambiquous that basicaly they can say well we think you did and that’s enough…

Oh and due to this it is noticable that the police “target” those who are unlikley to be able to defend themselves and leave street criminals and apparently impecunious theives and naredowells alone… apparently to concentrate on Government emposed paper work, but more likley to improve their arrest to convicted conversion rate on which promotion and top position bonuses depend…

Is their justice in the UK?

Let’s just say it depends on how much money you have or apear not to have…

Matt October 16, 2009 11:46 AM

You know, with legal liabilities what they are, insurance premiums, helicopter parents and so forth, I do not see anyway around a 0 tolerance society.

Seriously, look up the Jena 6. The Superintendent stepped in and said that the punishment was too much, these were just kids being kids and then look at the result.

Far better to push the liability off on the police department…

How many times have we seen breaking headlines of Immigration Officers had Mohammed Atta on a LIST of terrorists / expired visa / etc… Or, drunk driver that killed family of 7 was pulled over last week and released???

No, this trend isn’t going to go away until people accept that bad things happen and fate and fortune rule the day.

TS October 16, 2009 2:40 PM

People, it’s an actual knife. Just because there’s a fork and spoon included doesn’t make it any less than a knife. It’s certainly much, much sharper than a dining knife, even sharper than a steak knife.

The problem here is the parents. Handing a kid a tool and letting him handle it as if it weren’t anything more than a toy. It’s a knife, tool that could cause serious injury, and it shouldn’t be in the hands of a child. Period.

No, he shouldn’t have to go to reform school, because he’s a 6 year old kid and doesn’t know any better. The parents should be caned though.

As for the comment about West Point… yeah, one incident may not keep you out of college. But it can keep you out of things like the National Honor Society and other groups which every other candidate has on their applications, and that certainly puts you at a disadvantage. Trust me, I know firsthand about that.

JimFive October 16, 2009 3:14 PM

@TS: “It’s certainly much, much sharper than a dining knife, even sharper than a steak knife.”

Not if it’s anything like the one in my boy scout mess kit. It is, basically, a 2″ steak knife without a point. The fork is more dangerous than the knife.


Pat Cahalan October 16, 2009 4:32 PM

@ TS

The problem here is the parents. Handing a kid a tool and
letting him handle it as if it weren’t anything more than a
toy. It’s a knife, tool that could cause serious injury,
and it shouldn’t be in the hands of a child. Period.

Do you know how many “tools that could cause serious injury” are routinely handled by children?

A sharpened pencil is more dangerous than a cub scout multitool.

The parents should be caned though.

Why, because their child (who presumably has been exposed to the proper use of this tool by the scouts, who gave it to him in the first place) is trusted not to stab someone with an object that isn’t any more dangerous than a pencil?

Duff October 16, 2009 6:28 PM

A family friend got into a similar situation, except there was no media coverage. In response, the parents subsequently filed a formal complaint about the school issuing forks at lunchtime to make a point about the absurdity of the policy.

The result? The school only issued spoons at lunch. I think they’ve moved to plastic sporks now.

Our friend pulled their son out of school and sent him to a catholic school.

Andrew October 16, 2009 6:29 PM

Why do we allow liquids in schools? If they’re not safe for planes, how can they be safe for our children?

Peter A. October 16, 2009 8:14 PM

@ Duff:

That makes me curious about several things:

  • are we going to abandon our western culture of using utensils? aren’t schools supposed to teach proper manners at the table too? (no offence to chopsticks-users or those that do without any (but I fear chopsticks would soon be banned as well if they aren’t already))

  • what school canteen serves in the absence of forks&knives? porridge? mashed potatoes?

  • if they happen to serve something more solid than that, like a steak, how the students are expected to consume it? take it in one’s hand and bite at it?

  • if anything barely sharp enough to cut into your meal is so dangerous, why don’t they ban teeth?

Werner October 17, 2009 6:35 AM

@Peter A.: it’s absurd and irresponsible to insist on filling schools with eating utensils that can be weaponized. Knives, forks, or even chopsticks clearly have no place there. Neither do spoons, plates, or bowls.

Fortunately, the popular sandwich offers a safe and satisfying alternative that requires neither possession nor application of dangerous dual-use tools.

That is, until something will be done about the biting problem.

  • Werner

Clive Robinson October 17, 2009 8:42 AM

@ Werner,

“Fortunately, the popular sandwich offers a safe and satisfying alternative that requires neither possession nor application of dangerous dual-use tools.”

Unfortunatly the sandwich has significant issues with regards health and the environment.

In these days of “contact spread” illness and food poisoning from chilled meats etc, the preperation and packing of sandwiches is becoming expensive.

Further the packaging usually represents a significant environmental hazard due to the use of plastics. Often it also requires the use of sharp tools to open as small fingered children often lack the strength etc.

Also something like 2% of the population exhibit ill effects from eating wheat. This ranges from life threatening reactions through to various lower GI tract problems causing distention and irritation. It has also been linked to longterm health problems with the liver etc and such things as skin problems. All of which makes concentration difficult for adults let alone children trying to learn.

And of course all the health issues relating to dairy and non dairy fats and emulsifiers used in butter and butter substitutes (which some of definatly have significant health implications).

Then there are issues to do with the availability of grain. Due to short sighted legislation relating to bio-fuels there are considerable changes undergoing the production of the grains required for bread making.

Also the use of the land for growing such grains usually empoverishes the land requiring the use of chemicals derived from amongst other places the oil industry. Unfortunatly significant quantities of these man made chemicals get washed out of the area they are intended for causing further environmental harm to water ways, water supplies and eventualy marine life. For instance some “bloom” ascosiated with shell fish poisoning is directly attributable to grains.

There appears to be a corelation with water polution caused by agriculture and childrens learning abilities.

So all in all deppending on which ever way you look at it sandwiches are not a realy a good idea as part of the staple diet of developing children.

Werner October 17, 2009 3:21 PM

@Clive Robinson: I stand corrected. I guess there’s just no safe way to feed kids. Better stop that practice altogether 😉

  • Werner

Doug October 17, 2009 6:46 PM

Forrest Gump says it best: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

There really should be a zero stupidity tolerance policy for school administrators, but that would leave most of our schools unmanaged.

Clive Robinson October 18, 2009 1:37 AM

@ Werner,

“I guess there’s just no safe way to feed kids. Better stop that practice altogether ;-)”

Bingo you’ve found the real problem “no safe way”.

Everything we do has consiquences and risks trying to eliminate them is a “fools errand”, which I guess is Bruce’s point.

As for “stop that practice” my son could eat an army out of house and home 8(

But if I don’t feed him he starts complaining loudly 8(

That’s the trouble with life it bites back 😉

aaronius October 19, 2009 12:42 AM

anyone care to coment on the underlying philosophy:
teaching children that ignorance of anythying
that might be a potential weapon is a “good ideal”?
Rather than recognizing that real weaponness
resides in the circumstances of use,
and the use of the imagination?

Dean October 19, 2009 6:55 PM

Re: sandwiches. How about feeding kids the old-fashioned way. You know, making the sandwich yourself and send the kid to school with his lunch in a bag? Why does a sandwich have to be prepared and packaged in a factory?

And the bonus… When the kid is old enough he can start making his own d*mn sandwiches.

Clive Robinson October 19, 2009 8:46 PM

@ Dean,

“And the bonus… When the kid is old enough he can start making his own d*mn sandwiches.”

My son is seven and a half and as I keep telling him I fried my own breakfast at weekends when I was his age…

However he still finds it easier to plague dad for “shake from the box” type breakfast.

So a minor victory this weekend I refused to play and he did it himself 8)

Downside was the two hours of pestering befor hand 8(

Oh for those Victorian days when children where seen but seldom heard };)>

moo October 20, 2009 10:09 AM

You let a seven-year-old plague you for 2 hours about getting him a bowl of cereal? My parents would have laughed the first time, and kicked me outside or something the second.

Clive Robinson October 20, 2009 11:12 AM

@ moo,

“You let a seven-year-old plague you for 2 hours about getting him a bowl of cereal? My parents would have laughed the first time, and kicked me outside or something the second.”

Yes my parents would have taken similar action.

However doing the same would have involved getting out from under the duvet which I did not feel like doing 8(

The pluss side he made his breakfast himself this morning without any prompting 8)

DC October 20, 2009 7:55 PM

A 15 year old son of a friend was ejected from school two years back under this zero-thought policy for simply drawing a picture (he’s quite an artist) of himself with his gun killing a squirrel in my backyard. Which actually happened, with my supervision and blessings — we live in a very rural place where this is a normal part of growing up, even for the “Artistically sensitive.

A picture! On inquiry, it turns out that they’ve seriously re-written history, no longer teach things like “the shot heard round the world”, or that the civil war was anything but an angry discussion.

So indeed, what harm was he going to do with a picture of himself doing something he actually did do, all legal and approved? Let the other kids know the utter BS that is the NEA’s agenda?

Oh no, they’ve read stuff like Harry Potter, and of course that picture could instantiate into the real thing! Complete with squirrel, I suppose.

I encouraged him to draw it on his bicep, and wear a T shirt and claim the right to “bare arms” next time.

True story. Around here — the ridicule the shool people got fixed some of that up right off — it’s a small town, they have to go home at night and see their neighbors. But they still teach outright lies about history in that school.

That’s the real threat.

Lukas October 21, 2009 2:21 PM

When I was a kid in Switzerland, every boy had a swiss army knife and/or a small hunting knife. I’m pretty sure this is still the case today. Magically, kids manage to not injure and kill each other constantly.

I think a lot of this is based on unwarranted panic and ass-covering.

perianwyr January 17, 2010 1:57 PM

When I was a child, my father (a greek god) beat me with a steel girder summoned out of thin air at the slightest provocation. I learned to battle him and today contend to control Olympus.

This story is at least as reasonable as half the stuff in this thread, and contains far less hyperbole. Grow up, folks.

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