For local schools, police ‘zero tolerance’ doesn’t mean ‘zero sense’

Across the country, school officials are suspending and even expelling children as young as 5 years old for doing what many consider normal play.

Several cases of school aged children pointing their fingers or other toys like guns have resulted in administrators handing down what some consider draconian suspensions. Heightened sensitivity in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in December has kicked many schools’ zero tolerance policies into overdrive.

In some cases, the police get involved, charging the children with terrorist acts.

And although the alleged culprits are high school students and not elementary students, the Marshalltown Police Department even charged two students earlier this year with terrorist threats.

Still, Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper, said police work closely with the school district and juvenile court services to examine the totality of a situation instead of applying a blanket solution to every circumstance.

“If we are talking about a young child, like 6 years old, that is definitely a mitigating factor that does need to be considered,” he said.

For instance, he said, threats by a middle or high school student carry more weight than those of a first or second grader because of the older child’s ability to understand and perpetrate such a threat.

His officers work hard to avoid rushing to judgment and make decisions that are based on facts, not emotions.

“Zero tolerance can get out of hand,” he said. “Overreacting to any situation is not going to solve anything and almost makes things worse.”

Lisa Koester, director of human resources for Marshalltown Community School District, said while local schools do have a stringent policy, especially regarding bullying and harassment, administrators consider each incident on its own terms.

Only administrators can hand down suspensions, which can be up to 10 days, and only the Marshalltown School Board can expel students. Koester and other administrators investigate any situations that warrant expulsions.

Administrators take a “common sense” approach, she added.

“When we talk about zero tolerance, it doesn’t mean we do to the max with every child,” Koester said.

Concerted efforts on the part of school officials to use what Koester called positive behavior intervention has caused suspensions and office referrals, especially at Marshalltown High School, to drop dramatically in recent years, she said.

While the school does occasionally need to involve police, such circumstances are rare, she said. Koester agreed that taking a child’s age into account is important.

“A kindergartner pointing his fingers into a gun on the playground we are not going to expel a child like that,” Koester said. “We will talk to them and teach them how to play the safe way first.”

In her seven years with the school district, Koester said she is unaware of an elementary student being expelled.