Recently, zero tolerance became big news here in Michigan. Jeremy Hix, a student at my alma mater, Holt High School, has been the focus of many a newspaper article outlining the atrocious misuse of the zero tolerance law in the state of Michigan and across the country.

Jeremy's story begins at Holt's prom this past May. Hix is of Scottish decent and decided to wear full bagpiper's regalia to the prom instead of the traditional tux. The evening was uneventful until for some reason, a teacher got around to questioning Jeremy about his attire and discovered a ceremonial knife called a sgain dubh with a three-and-a-half inch blade tucked in his sock. Never had Jeremy taken the knife out of its place until the teacher requested him to. He was promptly suspended for the remainder of his junior year and talk of an expulsion under the zero tolerance law flew.

Among the media coverage of the Hix incident was an article run this week in the Lansing State Journal* outlining some of the sillier punishments that have been carried out under zero tolerance laws:

  1. An 11-year-old girl was taken from school by police because she brought a plastic knife to school, according to the Boston Globe. The girl's grandmother had given her the knife to cut a piece of chicken.
  2. Earlier this year, a Pontiac Michigan fifth-grader was sent home for two days because he took a gun-shaped piece of jewelry to school.
  3. A fifth-grader was suspended for a year after he took some razor blades from a friend who had threatened to use them on other students, the Baltimore Sun reported earlier this year.
  4. An 8-year-old boy was suspended from school in Canada after he pointed a piece of breaded chicken at a teacher and said "Bang." Nova Scotia school officials said policy defines a weapon as "anything designed to cause death, injury or intimidation."

Aren't zero tolerance laws designed to prevent violence in schools? How is suspending a child armed only with a chicken leg supposed to help? What will be the next step here? Suspending students wearing belts because they could potentially be used as an instrument of strangulation?

The Holt Public Schools school board was scheduled to meet on July 24 to determine Jeremy's scholastic fate. It was expected that they would vote to expel him. Prior to the meeting, however, Jeremy's lawyer reached an agreement with school administrators after five hours of discussion. Jeremy will be suspended for the first semester of his senior year, but will be allowed to return to school for the spring semester. In the meantime, he will likely take courses at Michigan State University so he will be able to graduate on time with the rest of his class.

I think it is sad when we allow out-of-the-norm incidents to rule our thinking and make us paranoid. No, school is not the place for a weapon. And yes, Jeremy probably should have known to omit the decorative knife from his outfit. But obviously he did not intend to use it as a weapon. What good will it do to make him miss half his senior year of high school? How is it helpful to suspend a girl who brought a plastic knife with her lunch? School administrators and authorities need to use common sense when interpreting the zero tolerance law and realize that despite its name, there are some logical exceptions.

* The Lansing State Journal is hardly the best paper in Michigan, but it is the paper that is always in the break room here at work and therefore I read it. The list of incidents included above were taken directly from the July 22 paper.