When I was 10 years old, my schoolteacher gave me and my classmates an assignment. "Write a story," she said. "Use your imagination."
Then, as now, I was an avid film buff. I had just watched a movie called The Day the World Ended, in which a nuclear holocaust sweeps the earth. The radiation creates a new race of demon-like creatures that roam the earth hunting the human survivors. All seems lost until an unexpected rainfall melts the creatures.
Inspired by this story, I used it as the basis for my school assignment - complete with the rain sizzling the creatures. My teacher, however, wasn't as enraptured as I was with the plot. Soon I found myself in the principal's office, where the disturbed headmaster informed my mother that her only child obviously suffered from a mental imbalance.
But that was the extent of the reaction from the school - a lecture for me and telephone call to my parents. The next day I was back in class.
If I had written that same story in today's public schools, however, I might have ended up in jail. In fact, that's exactly what happened to a 13-year-old boy in Ponder, Texas.
His teacher, like mine, gave the class an assignment to write a creative story. This wasn't supposed to be just any story, but a scary one - a tale in the spirit of the upcoming Halloween holiday.
When Christopher Beamon wrote a rambling, sometimes silly story that included shooting a teacher and two classmates, his teacher liked it enough to give him an "A." But that was the last good news for Christopher - because suddenly his own story became really scary. In fact, school administrators became so hysterical over his imaginary tale that Christopher was sentenced to ten days in a juvenile detention facility.
After his family's attorneys demanded his freedom, journalists began highlighting the case and the district attorney said he didn't want to prosecute, Christopher walked out of juvenile detention after serving six days and five nights.
We could spend time wondering what was wrong with the school administrators who overreacted to the story, the police who actually took the boy into custody or the members of our justice system who let him sit there for almost a week. But I think the real problem is a broader one, one that has infected our entire society in the wake of Columbine and the other tragic school shootings.
In today's climate, school administrators are under tremendous pressure from the public to "do something." Unfortunately, this effort has often manifested itself in zero tolerance policies that dictate draconian punishments for offending students.
These policies don't allow any leeway for school officials. If a student fits under the policy's broad definitions of unacceptable behavior, he or she is suspended or expelled - and now even jailed. It's the worst kind of strict liability system.
But the problem runs even deeper than just bad policies. What we have in today's public schools is a kind of educational McCarthyism - a blind crusade that argues for weeding out the "dangerous elements" at any price. Senator Joseph McCarthy ran roughshod over the Constitution in the 1950s in his zealous crusade against Communism and in the process destroyed many innocent people. Similarly, today's school administrators often ignore fundamental rights as they zealously target "problem" students.
As more and more innocent students are targeted, public outrage should explode. Under an ideal scenario, the most vocal supporters of these oppressive policies - which, by the way, includes Senators like Republican majority leader Trent Lott - should either be run out of office or forced to recant.
Or better yet, spend six days in jail.