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School's Zero-Tolerance Policy Suspends Girl for Possession of Key ChainAired September 29, 2000 - 1:38 p.m. ET
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LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: The hour's top story is the fight over weapons and alleged weapons in U.S. schools. A middle school student in suburban Atlanta drew a 10-day suspension for carrying a Tweety Bird key chain to class.
Local regulations call any chain a weapon and, barring legal action, there's no opportunity for appeal in this case. So-called zero-tolerance policies are designed to keep students safe from other students, but at what price?
Joining me now to talk about this some more, Julie Underwood, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, and Robert Tsai of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ms. Underwood, first to you.
I venture to say that, if this weren't a Tweety Bird key chain, we wouldn't be sitting here talking about this today; but because it is, and because media are all over it, here we are and we have the reaction from the chairman of the Cobb County school board saying, I thought, when I first heard about the girl's suspension, give me a break, it makes us look stupid.
So is it a PR problem, or is it a zero-tolerance policy we should be talking about here?
JULIE UNDERWOOD, NATIONAL SCHOOL BOARDS ASSOCIATION: Well, it's really a problem in drafting zero-tolerance policies. What zero- tolerance policies are intended to do is, kind of, set the stage to say, these items we will not accept in our schools.
And unless you write them very carefully, you might cast the net too widely and get the kind of situation that we see here today.
WATERS: Well, do you get the idea that this policy was written carefully?
This was a Tweety Bird key chain.
UNDERWOOD: Well, it seems that they may not have written the definition of "weapon" real carefully. To broadly define weapons by including any chain might be a problem. If you have reasonable zero-tolerance policies, you define what you're proscribing very carefully and narrowly so that these situations don't happen, or you give the administrator some kind of discretion so that they can either define "weapon" or "drugs" -- some of these zero-tolerance policies involve drugs -- so that the administrator can use some kind of reasonable discretion and avoid these kinds of situations.
WATERS: Well, let's get Mr. Tsai involved here because the only way to pursue this appeal that the parents have toward the school board over this matter is a legal strategy.
Is there reason to get attorneys involved in a Tweety Bird key chain?
ROBERT TSAI, ACLU: Well, I think that this case illustrates just what's wrong with zero-tolerance policies. I mean, when you look at these kinds of policies and the way they're drafted and implemented, kids are routinely denied the right to due process all of the time.
And this girl, I think, she's got the key chain, and no one can seriously say that her key chain poses any threat.
WATERS: Well, I have children of my own in middle school, and their safety is of paramount importance to me; but if it was a Tweety Bird key chain, I would say, wouldn't there be another way of handling this?
TSAI: Well, we would feel the same way. I mean, the real problem with these zero-tolerance policies is that they call for common sense and judgment to be, frankly, thrown out the window and uses a sort of one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with, really, what ought to be, sort of, a situation that you look very closely at -- the situation and the facts and what it is that we're talking about; and, you know, I mean, look at key chain. There is no way this could be a weapon any more than a necklace or a bracelet could be a potential weapon.
WATERS: And Ms. Underwood, more so than the key chain, I think the concern should be placed upon the suspension of the student. What are you doing for my child, should be the question asked by the parents.
Here she is, sitting out two weeks now. Is that fair?
UNDERWOOD: Well, really, what the question is, is how can we protect all of the children in the school?
And you really do want to send a message to your entire community that there are some things in schools we just won't tolerate. Now, a Tweety Bird key chain is probably not in that list.
Maybe the parents and the administration can work together and somehow resolve this out of court.
WATERS: What about what Mr. Tsai said and what was written on the op-ed page of today's "Atlanta Constitution," that the school has refused to temper draconian policy with good judgment.
UNDERWOOD: Well, if I've got to balance harsh policies against student safety, I'm going to err in favor of student safety.
WATERS: Mr. Tsai, you get the last word.
TSAI: Well, that's really, I think, the problem -- is that these attitudes reflect that any time someone is asked to use common sense that they're always going to say that safety is the issue.
And unfortunately, these kinds of things don't help the situation; rather they, I think, breed a feeling that the school has their priorities completely wrong, and you've got this family who probably feels that they've been wronged in some way.
WATERS: Well, we'll follow it. We'll see how it plays out.
Ms. Underwood, Mr. Tsai thank you, both.
TSAI: Thank you.
UNDERWOOD: Thank you.
WATERS: What do you think about the zero-tolerance policies adopted by some school systems? Do they do more harm than good, or are they essential to keeping children safe?
Give your opinion at cnn.com on the message board.
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