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John Whitehead's Commentary

Student Sentenced To One-Year Expulsion For Possession of Nail Clippers

John Whitehead
Tawana Dawson, a 15-year-old student at Pensacola High School in Florida, has been expelled for the 1999-2000 school year for bringing nail clippers to class. Why was this academically strong student who has no record of disciplinary problems given such a harsh sentence for something she didn't even know was a "crime"?

It's because her school, like so many others across our nation, has initiated zero tolerance policies--a one-size-fits-all disciplinary procedure that mandates suspension or expulsion for students who violate the rigid rules, regardless of the student's intent. Zero tolerance, which requires blanket punishment for students with no regard for individual circumstances, stifles students and administrators alike, thereby harming those it is intended to protect.

Zero tolerance policies began sweeping the country in 1994 after a federal law required states to adopt a law mandating a one-year expulsion for any student possessing a gun at school. Zero tolerance policies have now expanded to include drugs, alcohol and violence. Their application, however, has extended beyond the realm of reason. Under the parameters of zero tolerance, students are now being expelled or suspended for sharing cough drops or for bringing water guns to school.

While schools must protect students from physical harm, they also need to "safeguard individual students' rights" and "must resist the temptation to overreact," warns Nathan L. Essex, dean at the University of Memphis. Essex recognizes that "when violent acts occur on school campuses nationwide, officials tend to act swiftly and aggressively...without proper consideration regarding the constitutional rights of students."

Unfortunately, many schools have overreacted as a result of recent school tragedies such as the shootings in Littleton, Colorado. While undeniably tragic, such fatal violence is not a daily threat. In fact, statistics show that school violence is actually decreasing. Nevertheless, schools are continuing to implement zero tolerance policies under the misconception that an administrative policy can protect the children from random acts of violence.

Another misconception is that zero tolerance policies successfully deter violence. But according to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, zero tolerance has not been proven to reduce school violence.

Nor are these rigid policies a protective shield against liability, as some proponents suggest. Proponents of zero tolerance believe that having a standard predetermined punishment--suspension or expulsion--for a specific infraction, for example--protects the schools from litigious parents who believe their child was "singled out" or "unfairly punished". However, zero tolerance policies have increased, rather than decreased, the number of lawsuits against schools. As more children are being severely punished for minor, inconsequential infractions, more parents are fighting back.

The inflexibility of zero tolerance resulting in outrageously disproportionate punishments is illustrated by the "nail clippers case." The clippers Tawana brought to school had a 2-inch metal blade as an attachment, which she logically believed was for cleaning fingernails. The school administrators and school board disagreed, however. It seems that under the school's zero tolerance policy, the 2-inch file was considered a "knife." And since the mandatory punishment for carrying a "weapon" to school is a one-year expulsion, Tawana now faces the possibility of having to attend a school for students with disciplinary problems this coming year.

Unfortunately, Tawana's was not an isolated incident. In Chicago last year, a high school junior was expelled from school for shooting a paper clip with a rubberband at a classmate. In Louisiana, a second-grader brought her grandfather's antique pocketwatch for "show and tell" and was suspended for a month because the watch had a 1-inch pocketknife attachment. In West Virginia, a seventh grader was suspended for three days for violating the school's anti-drug policy--he shared a zinc cough drop with a classmate. Similarly, a sixth grader in Colorado was suspended for giving another student an "organic" lemon drop.

Zero tolerance policies not only deny students individual consideration, they also strip administrators of autonomy in determining punishment. While the 1994 federal law mandates suspension for students with guns at school, it also allows each school district's "chief administrative officer" the flexibility of modifying punishment on a case-by-case basis.

Unfortunately, many localities are not allowing their administrators such flexibility. This is resulting in growing resentment among some school officials. "I'm terribly embarrassed when I read about some of these cases," says Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "These are examples of adults not exercising proper responsibility. I'm always in favor of just plain common sense."

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president The Rutherford Institute. His books Battlefield America: The War on the American People and A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State are available at He can be contacted at Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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