by Jesse Fox Mayshark

"The chickens of zero tolerance are coming home to roost."

That was the opening sentence of a Metro Pulse editorial 11 months ago. All that can be added this week is, "And how."

Not that we're claiming any great precognition. Anyone who's watched the zeal and irrationality with which the Knox County school board has pursued its "zero tolerance" policy during the past few years could have predicted that sooner or later some higher authority would have to step in and put on the brakes.

That happened last week with an edict from federal district court Judge James Jarvis, who ruled the board and former Superintendent Allen Morgan violated the constitutional rights of a student expelled for having a knife in the glove compartment of his mother's car.

The question now is whether the school board will learn from this costly reprimand—Jarvis has ordered a hearing to determine the amount of damages to be paid to the student and his family—or whether it will continue to elevate tough talk over common sense.

What's wrong with "zero tolerance" is not so much the original idea of it—that students who bring dangerous weapons to schools deserve expulsion—as its application. And, maybe, the phrase itself. "Zero tolerance" has the kind of absolutist, quasi-fascist ring that publicly sanctioned disciplinarians tend to find irresistible. The problem is that absolutism, in its determination to make no distinctions whatsoever, often runs over—or, in Jarvis' words, "tramples"—individuals and individual rights.

Individuals, for example, like Dustin Wayne Seal. On Nov. 1, 1996, Dustin drove two friends to an evening football game at Powell High School. The three were all members of the Powell marching band, but they showed up late and were told they wouldn't be able to march. At some point, some other students told the band director that Dustin and his friends had been drinking alcohol. That prompted the school's vice principal to search Dustin's car in the parking lot, with Dustin's consent. The search turned up no alcohol, but it did yield a knife with a three-and-a-half-inch blade in the glove compartment. Dustin said one of his friends had been carrying the knife a few days earlier, allegedly to protect himself from his ex-girlfriend's current boyfriend. But Dustin insisted—and no one ever proved otherwise—he had no idea his friend had placed the knife in the car's glove compartment while riding around the day before.

No matter. The knife fell under the school board's zero tolerance policy, and Dustin found himself facing expulsion. Two appeals, first to the school system's disciplinary hearing officer and then to the school board itself, had no impact. Dustin—who, it should be noted, could have chosen to skip the football game entirely and gotten off with nothing more than a reprimand from the band director—was kicked out of school and hasn't been back since. He's now 19 and has yet to earn a diploma.

The Knox County school board, of course, is hardly alone in its embrace of "zero tolerance." In the wake of much-publicized (but still extremely rare) violent incidents at public schools—most of them involving guns—school officials and state legislators across the country have tripped over each other in their rush to get tough. It started with firearms, and nobody argued. But then it spread to knives, vaguely defined "weapons" of all sorts, and eventually drugs and alcohol. Knox County has yet to see anything as silly as the notorious Midol case—in which a young woman was suspended for possession of a menstrual painkiller—or the boy kicked out of kindergarten for bringing a plastic hatchet to school with his firefighter costume. But there have been a lot of cases like Seal's, where students guilty of little more than bad luck and momentary stupidity have had their right to public education abruptly terminated.

Jarvis' ruling might make that a little more difficult to do. Although he upholds the board's right to enact and enforce a zero tolerance policy, he also introduces a word the school board has ducked and dodged for several years: "intent." "Under the board's current interpretation of its Zero Tolerance policy," Jarvis writes, "a student will be suspended from school even if he does not intend to violate the Zero Tolerance policy." As zero tolerance cases began to accumulate in the mid-'90s, board members publicly stated that they were not going to look at students' intent in each case but merely at whether the policy itself was technically violated. In the case of Dustin Seal, that meant not caring whether he even knew the knife was in the car. In Jarvis' words again, "This is indeed too broad a stroke for the brush of zero tolerance."

It is, of course, up to school officials to set appropriate standards for student behavior. But students aren't the only ones who have to balance their rights with their responsibilities. Public schools have a duty to provide an education to all students, and that duty should be abdicated only in the most severe circumstances. It can take several years—and in some cases, maybe a lifetime—for an adolescent to make up for a single year's absence from school.

The school board, in fact, has softened its stance somewhat. Last year, it started allowing the superintendent to "modify" expulsions, usually so students would miss only two semesters of school rather than three. Out of 110 students expelled in 1997-98 (up from just 15 in 1992-93), 79 of them got somewhat reduced sentences. Still, many of those students lost a full year of instruction. When—and if—they return, they'll be far behind their peers, which could make any academic or motivational problems they already had almost insurmountable.

As Jarvis makes clear, the board has a responsibility to consider the circumstances of each student's case individually. Board members have not done that. They are now dolefully warning that any damages paid to Dustin Seal's family will have to come from taxpayers' pockets. That's true. Taxpayers should remember whose bill they're paying.