GUEST OPINION: When zero tolerence is zero judgment

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First Amendment Center
Kids shouldn’t be suspended for relatively innocent acts, particularly if they involve speech not intended to cause harm. Yet many public school officials overreact, even imposing suspensions or expulsions on kids for what often are innocent comments or juvenile acts.

The latest example comes from Aurora, Colo., where the Associated Press reports that a 6-year-old boy was suspended for three days for quoting the lyrics “I’m sexy and I know it” from the song “Sexy and I Know It” by the duo LMFAO.

Sad to say, this is not an isolated incident. Such events occur with alarming frequency. John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute provides several examples in his powerful commentary, “Arrested Development: The Criminalization of America’s Schoolchildren.”

Whitehead cites recent examples of a 14-year-old in Brevard, Fla., suspended for the innocent hugging of a female friend, and of a 9-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., suspended for sexual harassment for calling a teacher “cute.”

School officials have a duty to prevent sexual harassment. Kids should be warned about unwanted and unwelcome comments of a sexual nature. But suspending or expelling elementary school kids is an overreaction — most of the time.

Common sense needs to prevail, rather than an inflexible reliance on the mantra of “zero tolerance.” Originally devised as a way to get tough on weapons in school, zero-tolerance policies now target many forms of speech and expressive conduct.

When kids are suspended for relatively innocent acts, that represents more than zero tolerance. It epitomizes zero judgment.

David L. Hudson Jr. is a scholar at the First Amendment Center. Hudson writes for firstamendmentcenter.org and for other publications devoted to First Amendment issues.