Zero tolerance? Zero common sense

Talbot County residents are no doubt sleeping easier after the school system used a policy of zero tolerance for deadly weapons to crack down on two high school lacrosse players who were caught with a small penknife and a lighter used to repair their sticks. However, we feel it important to warn them that they still may not be safe. After all, we hear that the baseball and softball players bring dozens of long, aluminum clubs with them to games and practices. For that matter, children as young as kindergarten routinely carry sharp, wooden sticks, and there are even special machines in virtually every classroom to hone these "pencils" to murderous points.

Absurd? Certainly, but not more so than Talbot County Superintendent Karen Salmon's insistence that the 2-inch pocket knife 17-year-old Graham Dennis had in his bag was a criminal offense that could be punished by up to three years in jail, and that he was getting off easy with just a 10-day suspension (which would have to be reported to any colleges he applies to) instead of outright expulsion. And it's certainly no more absurd than the school board's refusal to hear from the 50 parents who attended a meeting to speak on the boys' behalf on the grounds that it might sway their decision on an appeal of the suspension — perish the thought that they might listen to the opinions of those they are elected to serve.

It's entirely appropriate for Talbot County or any other district to have a policy against deadly weapons at school. The problem is in officials' insistence that such a policy prevents them from employing even a modicum of common sense. It is a problem not limited to Talbot County; too often, those in a position of authority appear scared to exercise judgment for fear that they will be criticized and instead seem to wish that every conceivable situation they encounter might be addressed by inviolable rules that they can simply follow. This tendency is abetted by another common dodge, which is a policy against publicly discussing disciplinary or personnel actions. What sounds like a measure to protect the reputation of the accused instead winds up as a way for those in positions of authority to avoid the embarrassment of attempting to explain the inexplicable.

Mr. Dennis and Casey Edsall, also 17, who was caught with the lighter, had reasonable explanations for why they had the contraband that had nothing to do with safety or violence. The knife, Mr. Dennis said, was used to trim strings when repairing lacrosse sticks, and the lighter, according to Mr. Edsall, was used to keep the cut ends from fraying. The lacrosse coaches Sun reporter Liz Bowie interviewed were divided on whether it is common practice for players to carry such items to games, but it is certainly true that they can be and are used for the purposes the boys describe.

If school officials determined that players shouldn't be carrying pocketknives and lighters, the reasonable response would have been to confiscate the items, explain the issue to the team, and ask the coach or some other responsible adult to carry any equipment that might be needed to repair sticks. That would have made a lot more sense than hauling Mr. Dennis off in handcuffs to the police station.

This case is likely to be Exhibit A in the state Board of Education's investigation into suspensions and zero-tolerance policies, which was initiated out of a fear that excessive discipline for minor infractions could have a disproportionate effect on students. The effort was launched in response to the suicide of a Fairfax County, Va., student who had been suspended after being caught with a small amount of a legal drug. But the board needs to consider the effect of these policies not just on the students in question but on the character of our educational system in general.

If a superintendent or local school board is unable or unwilling to exercise discretion in a case such as this one, what business do they have deciding on matters like multimillion-dollar budgets, the hiring and firing of principals, the negotiation of teacher contracts and the development of curriculum? And if we consider it a central mission of our schools to teach children not just to memorize facts but also how to think and reason, what kind of message does it send if those in charge employ none of those skills?

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