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Randy Cassingham

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bullet  Patrick Timoney's "Gun"

The "zero tolerance" stories just don't stop, despite court decisions and legislators demanding "common sense." A 2" hunk of plastic isn't a gun, unless you're a hysterical grade school principal who demands that 9-year-olds in your care sign confessions when they bring a toy to school.

From True's 7 February 2010 issue:

The Weight of the Evidence

Patrick Timoney, 9, was playing with Legos at lunch time at Public School 52 on Staten Island, N.Y. He particularly liked the policeman figure, since his father is a retired cop. But the boy was hauled into the principal's office for possession of a gun -- the tiny plastic one held by the Lego policeman. "They made me sign a statement," the tear-stained fourth-grader said. "She told me to write that I had a gun," he said. "She said, 'A gun is a gun'." The boy's mother had something to say about that. "This principal is a bully and a coward, and needs to be held accountable," said Laura Timoney, 44. "Why didn't anyone step up with an ounce of common sense and put an end to the harassment of my child?" (New York Daily News) ...That's your job now. It's time to sue.

That principal, Evelyn Mastroianni, doesn't have to rely on her own prejudices to figure out what to do with toy guns. I was able to locate a copy of the New York City's Department of Education Citywide Standards of Discipline and Intervention Measures, subtitled "The Discipline Code and Bill of Student Rights and Responsibilities" for K-12 (Kindergarten through 12th Grade). The copy I found (download here; PDF, 299K) is dated September 2008, and since I couldn't find a later one I suppose it's still current. At the very least, it shows that someone in the city's Department of Education has been urging some level of common sense for some time.

To begin with (p3), school officials are told that "prior to determining the appropriate disciplinary and/or intervention measures, the following must be considered: the student's age, maturity, and previous disciplinary record...." (bolding and underlining from the original). There were no indications in any of the reports I read that Patrick Timoney had any sort of discipline problems before, and in fact he loved school.

In the section on "Level 4" infractions (p16) for Kindergarten through Grade 5, which outlines that it is an infraction to possess "any weapon as defined in Category II", the policy goes on to urge:

Before requesting a suspension for possession of an article listed in Category II for which a purpose other than infliction of physical harm exists, e.g., a nail file, the principal must consider whether there are mitigating factors present. In addition, the principal must consider whether an imitation gun is realistic looking by considering factors such as its color, size, shape, appearance and weight.

The principal "must consider whether there are mitigating factors present"? What a concept! And note it says must, not "should". And the principal must "consider whether an imitation gun is realistic looking by considering factors such as its color, size, shape, appearance and weight." In other words, a gun is not a gun is not a gun: its color, size, shape, appearance and weight must also be considered before declaring a toy gun is a "weapon."

(A "Category I" weapon includes a real gun; "Category II" includes imitation guns but, again, only after consideration of its color, size, shape, appearance and weight.)

And all of this is before getting to the "Range of Possible Disciplinary Responses" to infractions outlined in DOE policy:

D. Parent conference
E. In-school disciplinary actions (e.g., exclusion from extracurricular activities, recess or communal lunchtime)
F. Removal from classroom by teacher (After a student is removed from any classroom by any teacher three times during a semester or twice in a trimester, a principal's suspension must be sought if the student engages in subsequent behavior that would otherwise result in a removal by a teacher.)
G. Principal's suspension
H. Superintendent's suspension that results in immediate reinstatement
I. Superintendent's suspension that results in continued suspension for a fixed period of 6-10 school days
J. Superintendent's suspension that results in extended suspension for 30 to 90 school days with an automatic review for early reinstatement after 30 or 60 school days

(There is no A-C.) One doesn't get to this list until the principal considers the factors that she "must", and then the first suggested "response" is a parental conference -- and in this case, even that would be an overreaction.

"A principal has the authority to suspend a student for 1-5 days when a student's behavior presents a clear and present danger of physical injury to the student, other students or school personnel," the policy clearly explains (p26), "or prevents the orderly operation of classes or other school activities."

Now, take a look at this photo of the toy in question and consider whether it's a weapon which "realistically" represents a "clear and present danger" of physical injury to students, thus requiring an immediate suspension (note the photo is approximately actual size):

If Ms Mastroianni truly thinks so, she's in severe need of retraining; a student teacher should have enough experience to know what to do when confronted with this outside of classroom hours: enjoy an innocent child's playtime. I'll bet Ms Mastroianni considers herself a "professional" educator, too! Yet she doesn't have the sense of a first-year teacher.

Mastroianni's actions constitute not just an overreaction, but an outrageous overreaction -- "actionable" in lawsuit parlance. The kid wasn't playing with the toy in class, it was during his lunch hour. There's no indication he was "shooting" at anyone with the "gun", either. There's absolutely no justification for the reaction she had.

Laura Timoney, the boy's mother, agrees: "You don't traumatize a child who loved to go to school, who wanted to be early every day to school, you don't make him cry, you don't make him fill out statements," she said in a TV interview, her eyes filling with tears. "You don't do it."

Yet that is exactly what the school did. It terrorized a child in its care -- for nothing. He was treated as a criminal, made to sign a confession of trumped-up charges, and his spirit destroyed. And if the school doesn't make this right, it's time for a lawsuit. And another in the next case, and another in the case after that, until school officials get it through their thick heads that they're there to protect and nurture children, not destroy them. But Ms Timoney should be warned: a lawsuit is a long and expensive process, as we've seen in previous cases. They're not for the timid.

"The Citywide Standards of Discipline holds students accountable for their behavior," the school policy reads (p3). That's fine, if done in an age-appropriate way, as the policy urges. So will Principal Mastroianni be held accountable for her destructive behavior? When?

- - -

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109 Comments on This Entry

All comments in this blog are reviewed prior to being published. Spammers: don't waste your time. The posting criteria are simple: if a comment is worth visitors' time to read, it's approved. If not, it's not.


Posted by Doug W, Wheaton, Ill on February 8, 2010:

When I saw this on the Today Show, Al Roker said "Well, better safe than sorry."

The other hosts seemed shocked at the story, saying, it was not a toy gun, it was a toy's toy gun.

Please keep up the fight against ZT.

---

I had no idea Al Roker was that stupid. -rc

Posted by Liz in Ohio on February 8, 2010:

Man, that is one enormous gun! Compared to the man holding it anyway.

Posted by Paul (Erie, PA) on February 8, 2010:

Did anyone think to ask where the Legos came from? If they were provided by the school for the children's use, there's an even larger problem.

---

I'm pretty sure he brought it from home. -rc

Posted by Agagooga (Singapore) on February 8, 2010:

I am led to believe that the madness of zero tolerance (like the madness of 8 year old boys being frisked at airports because their names appear on no-fly lists because they share names with terrorists) is because when more discretion was given to officials, they were accused of racial profiling. As such, their discretion has now been taken away.

The cost of a false positive (tormenting an innocent person) is much less than the cost of a false negative (missing a guilty person) so naturally they will go for overkill.

Posted by Chris, Roy WA on February 8, 2010:

Unbelievable. I've spent twelve years in elementary education and have been lucky enough to work with administrators who (usually) apply common sense and human decency to their job -- that some idiot would terrorize a kid in this manner is intolerable. I'm just so sick and tired of these zero-tolerance zealots traumatizing kids and ruining my entire profession's reputation. Keep up the good fight, Randy -- believe me, there are many, many teachers out here who are just as eager as you to eliminate this zero-tolerance nonsense!

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I know there are, Chris, and I salute you! I can't imagine how maddening it would be to watch cases like this up close. -rc

Posted by Terry, New Zealand on February 8, 2010:

Just sent the school administrator my personal thoughts. (Not abusive, but hopefully it will provoke some sort of thought process), doesn't seem like theres any of it going on in the adult side of the school as it stands.

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I appreciate you weren't abusive. -rc

Posted by David, Atlanta on February 8, 2010:

It wasn't quite the same situation, but a response equivalent to the bit in "Uncle Buck" seems appropriate:

Buck Russell: ...I don't have a college degree. I don't even have a job. But I know a good kid when I see one. Because they're ALL good kids, until dried-out, brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they're no good. You so much as scowl at my niece, or any other kid in this school, and I hear about it, and I'm coming looking for you!

[looking at the mole on administrator's face]

Buck Russell: Take this quarter, go downtown, and have a rat gnaw that thing off your face! Good day to you, madam.

Posted by Matt in MA on February 8, 2010:

Not only is doing this kind of thing incredibly stupid and traumatic for the victim, it completely undermines the purpose of the school in the first place. Kids don't learn as much or as well if they view school as a hostile environment. Wouldn't be surprised if this affects his performance for years to come, perhaps not dramatically, but measurably, at least until he changes schools.

Not to mention that telling a kid that a 2 cm toy's toy gun is the equivalent of an actual loaded weapon hardly encourages critical thinking....

---

It's hard to teach it if the educators don't understand it in the first place. -rc

Posted by Keith in Connecticut on February 8, 2010:

This principal has gone too far. She's practicing witchcraft if she sees that toy as a weapon. She's the real threat in my opinion.

I hope you send all these responses to the mother so she can tell her son that he's okay, and the problem lies with an 'adult' whose power has caused her to lose her way.

Send them to the mayor too, so he won't forget what he's up against.

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I suspect mom will see this page (and I hope she drops me a line). The mayor I'm less sure about.... -rc

Posted by Dave, Niceville FL on February 8, 2010:

Yea, lawsuits are drawn out affairs, but I bet it wouldn't be hard to find a lawyer who would be willing to take this case for a portion of the proceeds. I mean the document you provided should be enough in and of itself to find her liable. I would be willing to settle for lawyer's costs and the firing of the principal with the understanding that if she ever worked in education again anywhere in the country the settlement is void and the suit is again on. Oh, and if she makes any money in any way associated with the case (like a book or movie), it is mine.

I know, that is pretty harsh, but that is the only way to stop this idiocy.

Posted by Terry, Winnipeg, Mb Canada on February 8, 2010:

Heaven help us. Are we not supposed to teach our kids how to think rationally. What is this world going to be like in 20 years time when this type of thinking becomes the norm.

Posted by Chris, Colfax, CA on February 8, 2010:

...and Timoney's sister took her unclothed Barbie Doll to school and the principal had her arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior and public nudity.

Posted by Eric in Spokane on February 8, 2010:

The student should not have to change school. The district should--actually must--change principals. At a minimum she should be reassigned to another school, but as I fear that may just foist her on other innocent students it would be preferable to have her demoted. At least until she has additional training.

Posted by Bonwell, Portland OR on February 8, 2010:

I will tell you in absolute honesty that I loved school when I was a little kid, and I would ask my teachers for extra homework (really difficult stuff, too). By the seventh grade I was considered a problem student. By the eleventh grade my parents had to file an injunction against my school counselor who advised that I be pushed out of the school altogether.

Then, by the time I was twenty-two, I had graduated off of three scholarships for excellence in teaching and was given a grant to teach high school pushouts, with a 94% GED rate (two students were jailed and did not complete). And I never got a teacher's license. Because I knew I wouldn't be able to work in that system.

That's the ultimate cost. This has less to do with ZT and more to do with our schools being handed over to a cyclical system of abuse.

Posted by Carol, Tucson AZ on February 9, 2010:

Considering the frequency of ZT idiocy, perhaps we should tell our children to demand the presence of a parent whenever they end up in the principal's office. If the police can't interrogate a minor without a parent present, why should a school be allowed to do so?
Perhaps a legal document filed with the school district (with a copy to the school & parents) requiring the presence of a parent or guardian before questioning a student.

---

I have been urging that concept for years. Adding a legal document is an interesting idea, and should definitely be explored. -rc

Posted by Richard, West Sussex, England on February 9, 2010:

We have a slightly different system in England. We allow children to carry toy guns (providing they are not true replicas) but we do not allow children, or anyone else, to carry real guns (except under very specific and tightly-controlled circumstances).

Somewhat eccentric, I know, but we seem to struggle by without too much trauma being caused to adults or children.

---

If you think you're free of ZT, think again. -rc

Posted by John, Longport, NJ on February 9, 2010:

It is an absolute necessity that this principal not be allowed near any student. However, it is also likely that in New York she is in the teachers' union. As such, it will be almost impossible to get rid of her (the New York teachers' union has some remarkable member protections). At best (or maybe it's worst) she will be de-assigned and join the other teachers in New York that get full salary for sitting in a room doing absolutely nothing. In total they cost the New York school district about $7 million per year. Your tax dollars not at work!

Posted by Stephen, Birmingham (UK) on February 9, 2010:

Just a thought but, don't school/local education boards usually have a number of elected positions? Sometimes totally elected?

If enough people are worked up enough about ZT in an area why not try to get someone elected who represents that view? Even if they don't win it gets the issue out in front of the voters and might scare the incumbent into doing something. In this case that something might be actually enforcing the policy as written. From what Randy has quoted it seems quite reasonable, think before acting and act only in proportion to the offense. Sounds quite reasonable to me.

Posted by Deputycleric, Wilmington DE on February 9, 2010:

If ever I saw a hater, it's that principal.

This sort of thing is one of many reasons people send their kids to private schools.

In doing so, they save their school districts huge amounts of money, since the parents are still paying taxes. In Philadelphia (to name one example), that savings is $330M yearly from Catholic schools alone.

So sending kids to private schools is "selfish" HOW exactly?

That's like a mugger complaining, after the wallet has already been handed over, that he didn't get a chance to beat the victim up as well.

The weird thing is how many people nod agreeably and applaud when the mugger makes this argument, but that's a topic for another day.

Posted by Jorn, DE on February 9, 2010:

"She told me to write that I had a gun," he said. "She said, 'A gun is a gun'."

But it was in possession of a police officer, and if a gun is a gun a police officer is a police officer.

I thought children were the ones who had difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. But, even if we accepted that a gun is always a gun, that unfortunately doesn't mean an educator is always an educator.

Posted by Stan, Laurel MS on February 9, 2010:

This is incredible! Somebody needs to hand Ms. Mastroianni a dictionary and have her look up the definition of "gun", and then have her look up the definition of "toy"... and THEN have her write those definitions a thousand times, to be sure that she has the concept!

Posted by Phil, Gilford NH on February 9, 2010:

Transfers and retraining aren't the answer here. Forced transfers only move the problem around. Retraining will amount to her sitting through a couple of seminars, signing a paper to say she paid attention, then going back to her job with nothing changed. "Zero tolerance", and particularly a bonehead-stupid application of zero tolerance like this, is abdication of responsibility, and as such, refusal to fulfill the duties and requirements of the position of responsibility you were hired for, not to mention an abuse of public trust. This principal was hired to think and to use her judgement wisely, not to blindly apply -- or, in this case, mis-apply -- rules without thought, or to bully her students. A janitor is more than capable of blindly following the rulebook, for a janitor's wage, and will probably actually follow the rules better.

I propose that the correct response to stupidity and bullying of this magnitude is to offer a choice of two options: Accept immediate public demotion to janitorial pay scale for not less than six months, or accept dismissal for cause with a provision that the offender will be ineligible to apply for any other position in that school district. The word will get around -- quickly -- that this kind of heavy-handed, thuggish behavior will not be tolerated, and is bad for both your career and your pocketbook.

---

I like it. -rc

Posted by Ron - Delaware on February 9, 2010:

I don't know...you could probably poke an eye out with it. ;-) (what I wouldn't give for a "sarcasm" font...)

Posted by Jenna, Michigan on February 9, 2010:

I remember back when I was in school, there were frequent times where the teachers and principal overreacted to something I said or did. There are many examples I could give, but I'll limit myself to just one for now.

One time, in 4th grade, our science teacher intimidated a friend of mine & made her cry. As I was consoling her & letting her know that he wasn't allowed to hurt her (like he'd threatened) and that she could "dance on his head and he's not allowed to do anything", and the teacher overheard, I was punished for having made a threat of violence against a teacher.

Posted by Alfred, Canada on February 9, 2010:

I am a retired elementary school principal. This sort of thing makes me ashamed for my profession. Doesn't anybody vet these people for a modicum of common sense?

Posted by McKenzie, via Facebook on February 9, 2010:

That is so very, very sad. In a day and age when our youngsters need the encouragement and recognition to help them get through the years of schooling that will lead to a college education, we actually have to worry about the school personnel in addition to the mean and cruel actions that can sometimes take place from the other children. Adults are old enough to know better--- SHAME ON THEM! Especially, in an educators role.

Posted by Dot, Michigan on February 9, 2010:

Amazing. Goes in the same category as my 6 year old being sent to the principal's office for "pretend fighting with weapons". He was playing Star Wars with another boy. His weapon? An imaginary lightsaber. I enjoyed calling the board office to let them know that I really didn't think my 6 year old was a threat since he couldn't show up at school and massacre his classmates with a lightsaber. Crazy people running the system these days!

Posted by Rene, Ohio on February 9, 2010:

Utterly utterly stupid. Even if the school can figure out something to 'make it right' the kid has still been damaged.

Posted by Janet, Canada on February 9, 2010:

The actions of this principal just show that she is not concerned first and foremost with the best interests of her students. She is on a cheap power trip that is best served by having her apologize to her entire school division in general and the family and child in particular, followed by a swift resignation of her post. She should not be allowed near children professionally in any capacity.

Posted by Glenn, San Diego on February 9, 2010:

It seems that this is not a problem of zero tolerance POLICY. Randy has shown documentation of a reasonable policy. This is an issue of a zero tolerance PERSONALITY.

Is this personality/mindset a result of zero tolerance policies in the past? Who can say, but I suspect there is a link.

Posted by dennis, san francisco on February 9, 2010:

"I had no idea Al Roker was that stupid. -rc".

I didn't see the broadcast, but don't you think he must have said it sarcastically? Sounds like a Letterman type crack.

---

I didn't see it either, but the impression I got from the comment was that it was serious. Let's hope it was sarcastic so I can retract my reply. -rc

Posted by Jennifer, California on February 9, 2010:

These are the times I wish the subjects of your coverage and the comments from us, your readers, could be sent along to them. The mother should find comfort that the whole world is not mad and the principal should note that citizens stand up to say children can be damaged by thoughtless action and "you, dear, were thoughtless".

Posted by Dave, Pottstown, PA on February 9, 2010:

There are justifiable concerns about the trauma to 9-year old Patrick and his family. But this is just one story that we've heard about. While news reports often don't include all relevant data, it is clear that poor professional decisions like aren't isolated instances; they are usually part of a pattern of behavior. We should be fair to Ms. Mastroianni, but our concern should also be about all of the OTHER kids who may have been traumatized by similar capricious edicts from Ms. Mastroianni. And there should be concern that as Principal, she may have "mentored" other teachers or aids to behave in a similar way. I suggest that this instance is probably just the tip of this particular ZT iceberg! Good luck to the parents of this school in rooting it out. You need to encourage the NY DoE to take action.

---

Indeed there are a lot of ZT stories I pass on; I could cover several times as many as I do. But yes, far more never hit the newspapers at all. It's a much bigger problem than most of us think. -rc

Posted by Bergman, Seattle WA on February 9, 2010:

Bravo to Jorn in DE, that's a VERY good point. A police officer is absolutely allowed to possess a gun on school property. If a 2" long action figure accessory is the same as a real gun, then the 1.5" tall police officer action figure must be real too, and if it's his gun, no crime was committed!

I find myself wondering, in schools where they routinely press charges against children for nonsensical reasons, what would happen if parents began making citizen's arrests of school staff for like violations, especially if the school's charges stand? If tobacco possession by students is prosecuted as drug possession, then arrest any teacher who does the same. If possession of aspirin by students is a criminal offense, then it is for teachers too. If all drugs must be dispensed by the school nurse, I wonder if she has a cabinet of locked up cigarettes and teacher's prescription medications in her office? If possession of weapons is arrestable, does the principal have a paddle hanging on the wall, or perhaps a pocket knife? And so on.

Interesting idea, eh?

Posted by Tom, Port Townsend, Wash. on February 9, 2010:

This principal obviously is an insecure dolt with absolutely too much time on his hands. And perhaps he has chosen to repress memories of the major effects on his own life by the little traumas of childhood.

Posted by Jack, Tampa Florida on February 9, 2010:

I saw a report on this story on one of the news networks who call themselves the "Main stream media". None of the details was included, just that the child was caught with a "gun" that was a two inch toy and that he had signed a confession. I hate "frivolous" lawsuits, but I would overcome that feeling to sue here, if my child did not get a public apology in front of the entire school. This principal is a sociopath and needs to find a different line of work.

Posted by Bryon Bristol CT on February 9, 2010:

The "clear and present danger" is addressed on the box of Lego's - "not for children under 3 may cause choking".

Posted by Larry, Keeseville NY on February 9, 2010:

It's sad that people like this are connected in any way with the education of our children. Thank you, Randy for being so outspoken about stupidity like this, wherever it happens to be.

Posted by Guy, Sydney Australia on February 9, 2010:

I am utterly gob-smacked that such stupidity is allowed to flourish in education systems. However, it seems to me that these (over-)reactions are primarily a result of fear of litigation; ironic considering the very real possibility of just that in this case. Australia has its share of stupidity too (and some of it can be blamed on the same fear of litigation, mostly from politicians, I believe!!), but I have to say this one takes the cake. I truly hope this woman, this "educator", is made an example of. It is way past time we each take responsibility for our own actions and the impact we have on others and stop trying to legislate against stupidity.

Posted by Nick, Tri-Cities, WA on February 10, 2010:

I have to say I agree with Glenn in San Diego: This doesn't necessarily fit 100% into the ZT category, since the policy appears to include expectations of common sense. In fact, if the rest of the policy is as reasonable as the excerpts shown here, then it is probably one of the best bureaucratic policy publications I've seen.

If the school district is like any other employer, the principal was presumably given a copy of this policy and made to sign a document stating that she had read it. If that is the case, and she hasn't actually read it, then she lied on employment documents. If she has read it, then she knowingly and intentionally violated district policy. Either one could and should (in this case) be used as grounds for dismissal...

---

I'm not sure you understand my point, then. Yes, policy appears to be a model of common sense. But who is applying it? A woman who apparently grew up under ZT, and is using that mindset despite policy. What else can we expect when kids grow up and get jobs? This is the whole point of my rants: kids grow up and move into the real world, so ZT is not just a schools issue. It happens that this one is in a school, and it happens that the principal's supervisors aren't doing anything about it (yet?), but I'm willing to bet that the principal is young and grew up under ZT, and she is now practicing what she learned. And if that doesn't horrify you, either you've not been paying attention, or I've not done my job. -rc

Posted by Aurora, Boulder CO on February 10, 2010:

In my mind the principal must be a coward to pick on one of the good students for what at worst is a teeny tiny minor infraction rather than being on the lookout for actual discipline problems. Said "gun" is incapable of firing any kind of projectile and only vaguely resembles a real gun. What an idiot this woman is.

Posted by Sue-Ellen, Pennsylvania on February 10, 2010:

What did he learn. This is a police officer. Police officers use guns in their jobs against the bad guys. But guns are bad. So police officers are bad. Therefore your retired police officer father must also be bad.

---

I wish I could disagree with your analysis, but I fear you're right on. -rc

Posted by Mike from Dallas on February 10, 2010:

Regarding any lawsuits, may I refer to Samantha Redding? Took 5 years of appeals all the way to the US Supreme Court just to establish the RIGHT to sue? And while the many suggestions for action against the principal sound good, all of them require the willingness of the superintendent or the school board to implement them, which they will not do.

Even after a successful lawsuit, and even after the replacement of the entire board, the principal will suffer nothing more than a transfer to practice her myopia elsewhere.

With the increase in private school enrollments and home schooling, along with an ever-increasing push for a school voucher system, the school boards still fail to recognize that they are not only infected but are, in fact, the very disease itself.

This kind of incident is nothing new. It just gets more publicity now. But at 58 years old, I've experienced repeated incidents with my kids, as well as myself in schools in 9 different states, and even my GRANDparents had similar stories from when they were in school in the 1920's.

I do not subscribe to Leninism in any way, but I believe it would take such a revolution to effect any real change, with the cure being just as bad or worse than the disease.

Cynical? Worse: hopeless. Our educational system is operated nightmarishly similar to our criminal correctional system. In fact, visit any public school in Detroit and you'll notice that they LOOK like correctional facilities. The only thing missing is the sniper in the north sector guard tower.

---

Right: they only have snipers in the south sector, where the light is better. Yes, it was Savana Redding I had in mind when I warned, "a lawsuit is a long and expensive process, as we've seen in previous cases. They're not for the timid." -- and the link there is to my write-up on Redding's fight. -rc

Posted by Stephen, Birmingham (UK) on February 11, 2010:

Revolutions don't have to be Leninist, there have been quite a few before and after Lenin that had nothing to do with his ideals. I seem to recall reading something about one in the US two hundred and something years ago that had pretty much diametrically opposite ideals to Lenin.

I do recall reading a slogan a slogan a few years back: "Four boxes to be used in defence of Liberty: Soap. Ballot. Jury. Ammunition. IN THAT ORDER." Perhaps before you start watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants you might want to try the first three?

If enough people get vocal enough, maybe the Superintendent and School Board will act? If enough people run for office citing events like this as something they want to get rid of and replace with a system of sensible policies enforced by sensible people and get enough votes, maybe the systems will get changed? If enough cases are brought, maybe enough will get through to force a change to the systems or at least make it expensive enough for the politicians to change the systems rather than pay to defend a bad one?

Posted by Paul, Texas on February 11, 2010:

If you had been able to include the e-mail address for the Staten Island Public School System superintendant, I suspect he/she would have received a few thousand e-mails suggesting corrective action for the principal. Could you include e-mail addresses for the appropriate authorities (or even for the intransigent principals) involved in such cases of "zero tolerance" ridiculousness which you report in the future?

---

I absolutely will not provide e-mail addresses and be the conduit for abuse by strangers! The point is for you to understand the issue so that you will stand up for kids in your area, because you should know this is happening all over the country -- and is happening more and more in other countries, too. School officials need to hear from local taxpayers/voters, since that's who they (should!) answer to. This is a case where "Think globally, act locally" applies. -rc

Posted by Bergman, Seattle WA on February 12, 2010:

To answer Stephen in Birmingham:

I agree entirely. But. A Soap box lacks power by itself. A Ballot box only helps with elected officials at the end of their term (won't do much to one public employee with a strong union). Jury boxes are almost totally ineffective at curbing school tyranny, since most courts claim they have no jurisdiction of even a city school until you hit a federal court (which often refuses to hear the case because it's not a federal issue). Even if the jury gets to hear the case, schools have lawsuit insurance; They don't pay a penny of the actual judgment, assuming you get one. And due to how slow the courts are, by the time that 6 year old gets "justice", odds are he'll be in high school or even college (or possibly have a 6 year old kid himself).

Due to the way the criminal system refuses to act against school officials, even ones wildly in violation of the law. Due to the way one guy on a Soap box is usually dismissed as a nutter. Due to the way courts refuse to even hear cases against a school. And due to the way all of these are getting worse, not better, as time goes by. The proper time for the Ammunition Box may be just over the horizon.

Posted by Mike from Dallas on February 12, 2010:

I think the point of Leninism was missed in my suggestion. I didn't mean literal bloody revolution to achieve change (shades of Che!), but that gradual change and fine-tuning of our current system would be an exercise in utter futility and wishful thinking. Any real change in the mindset of educators would require a total and complete dismantling of our current system, leaving no trace of it, in order to establish a new system from the ground up. However. I despair that it would eventually [d]evolve into the same morass that we currently "enjoy".

Still, the same could be said for our current political and economic system which has not yet been successfully duplicated anywhere else in the world, yet the U.S. is still the richest country in the world with the highest standard of living and opportunity for the common man, in spite of all the daily scare stories of corruption and failure.

Posted by Jim, Phoenix on February 12, 2010:

A tiny amount of follow-up.

---

I did see that article, reporting on the principal calling Patrick's mother to apologize. The story reports she was "unmoved" by the call, saying "I think she is sorry that this is happening. I wish she was sorry for Patrick." Hear hear. -rc

Posted by Ed, Ft Worth, Tx on February 12, 2010:

We all learn more by example than by instruction. Perhaps if the teacher & principal were made an example of in their district, others would get the message and use a little common sense. And if the Superintendent and School Board don't take swift action to relieve the teacher and principal they too should be relieved of office for failure to do their duty.

Posted by Barry, Virginia, Earth on February 12, 2010:

For Zero Tolerance Policy to be effective in societies, government individuals, legal system individuals, school system individuals, must choose to be first in line to persistently achieve improved individual accountability and improved individual responsibility levels and improved consequence levels for all individuals in societies. What school systems, legal systems, governments do not teach by lesson and by example that growing human beings need to learn is pathetic in supposedly advanced futuristic civilized societies.

Posted by Garry, Coos Bay OR on February 12, 2010:

Battelle Research (www.battelle.org) did some research on educational administrators some years ago. The conclusion was that they were overpaid and underprepared for their job. After 25 years in public education I'd have to agree. I did actually meet some very professional, very qualified and talented administrators, but I also ran into many who were not. I think this is a nationwide problem.

Posted by JohnK - Sacramento on February 13, 2010:

Thank God we were smart (or just lucky) enough to choose to put our child in private schooling. I am certain that, if she had been in the government-run schools, I would be in jail today, for throttling some idiot school administrator.

Posted by larrie - abu dhabi on February 13, 2010:

luckily for all, this teacher is not a police officer, she could have shot all those toy store clerk selling this lego's as concealing a gun or armed with a gun. in the first place who hired this teacher and who promoted this principal?

Posted by Shawnee Moon, Wapiti, WY on February 13, 2010:

Kids learn from adults, from TV, from life. How many movies have guns; how many cartoons, superheroes, historical figures, real heroes, have guns? And then we yell at and punish kids for mimicking one, having a toy one, pretending to have one. It's the classic example of, "Do as I say, not as I do."

Humans seem to have the inability to learn common sense. We do appalling things, or even NOT-so-appalling things, right in front of our children. We smoke, drink, 'play with guns', do drugs, cuss, kick dogs, etc., but when out KIDS do it we freak out: "Where did Billy LEARN such a thing??!!" Then poor Billy is punished, suspended, expelled, and all he did was what he SAW.

Throw the stupid parents in jail, or the TV producers, or just cut poor Billy a break.

You know, there's so much worse going on in the world than a kid with a Lego gun. Where are our priorities?? Probably in the desk next to him is a kid who's being sexually or physically abused, or who doesn't have enough to eat.

Posted by Mary, Canada on February 13, 2010:

It's very sad and I feel devastated for this young kid.

What's next? I wish that this Mastroianni woman would take a deep breath, show a certain amount of humility and then sit in front of this kid, admitting clearly (and explaining slowly) that she made a very big mistake.

That would at least show the kid that adults too make mistakes, that they too have to apologize, say they're sorry and suffer the consequences of their actions.

It wouldn't change what happened, but it could transform the experience a bit more positively for Patrick.

As for Mastroianni, well... let's hope she learns something out of it and loses if she gets sued!

Posted by Paul, Australia on February 13, 2010:

"Yet she doesn't have the sense of a first-year teacher."?

She doesn't have the sense of a first-grader!

---

I stand corrected. -rc

Posted by Mary, Nebraska on February 13, 2010:

Please, oh please do not transfer the principal to another school. This is how Catholic priests were able to continue abusing children for many years, by being moved to a new parish that didn't know what they were like. If they can't fire her, at least that school district knows what she is up to and can keep a foot on the back of her red neck.

Teachers/principals like her made my very-intelligent son's life hell for all of school; I guess his very polite manner that could barely disguise his utter boredom with the kindergarten level of high school subjects made him stand out...there's a Japanese saying that covers this nicely: "The nail that sticks up gets beaten down." I tear up thinking about what kids go through in public schools.

Posted by Bill, Virginia on February 13, 2010:

Might this not be a criminal action and not a civil one?? This appears to me to be child abuse. Frankly, I would be talking to an attorney about criminal charges against the Principal.

Posted by Nick, Massachusetts on February 13, 2010:

We live in a land of insane, unenforced and more often misapplied laws; my home state sadly and unfortunately is up there in this category.

This is the case with this story. Not losing sight of the intent of the policy in place as its design was proper, it is obvious to everyone (with the exception of one person, Ms Mastroianni) the execution was totally inappropriate but even THAT is not the underlying problem here. One must dig deeper. The subject was touched on by Randy but even he stopped short of seeing it or spelling it out.

Now, I don't want this to come across as a generalization as this is not true of ALL public servants BUT I have found that few of the ones who call attention to themselves (Ms Mastroianni) would make it working in the private sector for just the conduct and level of intelligence displayed by her. The ones that end up in the news (and a great many that fly under the radar who never do so) couldn't think themselves out of a paper bag but could easily do so out of a private sector job. Ms Mastroianni has given a fine example as proof of my observations. She had the policy SPELLED OUT for her and at her disposal yet failed to follow it! If any of us did this at work in a private sector job we would be unemployed… or am I wrong? Could it be that Ms Mastroianni knew the policy but was on a power trip? This too has been seen all too often in public sector employees. Either way, Patrick was wronged!

How is it that Ms Mastroianni came upon what she deemed a violation? She clearly was out looking for problems if she found Patrick herself. Was there any other school employee involved? Did I miss this?

Ms Mastroianni actions clearly show that she wanted notoriety for this 'bust'. I implore the school system to GIVE IT TO HER! Do the right thing for Patrick and his schoolmates if not for the taxpaying public. We deserve our tax dollars to be spent wisely. Training is obviously lacking and being so in a principal is all the more an issue. We would expect to see this in a student teacher but NOT in a principal. If a student teacher had done this we all know the outcome would have been vastly different (more than likely at Ms Mastroianni’s hand).

It would behoove the school system to make an example of this as there was clearly NO INFRACTION even close to being able to categorize under any aspect of the standing policy.

I don’t expect this to happen though as I cannot recall a case where accountability has been exacted against a public employees flagrant violations even if national attention had been achieved.

More is the pity for our system. (Please remind me… just WHO is it that works for who again?)

Posted by Alex, Asheville NC on February 13, 2010:

This is just another example of the gun hysteria so prevalent in our country. The child was emotionally injured because of a teacher's and principal's irrational fear of anything that even looks like a gun, and a "zero tolerance" policy that is seriously flawed. Why don't they institute a zero tolerance policy for bullying, then the kids would not feel the need to bring a real gun to school to protect themselves.

Posted by Brian, NJ on February 13, 2010:

The most disturbing aspect of the story is that it's unlikely the first time this person acted irrationally and disproportionately. It may be the worst example of it, but I guarantee you, it's not the first.

Although I'm loathe to recommend dismissal for anyone in this economy, I certainly believe this person is mentally unbalanced and possibly dangerous to the health and welfare of children who are vulnerable and in the process of development. She should be removed from any contact with children of any age, and a psychiatric evaluation is justified. That level of indifference, anger and irrationality is potentially dangerous to anyone.

Further, she clearly did not know the appropriate guidelines, so she was not performing her job as stipulated.

Posted by Dan in Oswego NY on February 13, 2010:

If people could see what's being taught in "Schools" of "Education" these days, they would know there is no hope for our current teacher qualification system. They seem as though intentionally DESIGNED to weed out sensible people, who see that senseless tripe, and change their major, or drop out to become something more socially useful, like dogcatcher.

Posted by Owen, Chocowinity, Nc on February 13, 2010:

Unfortunately, when administrators try to use common sense, they can get in trouble. One new administrator in Eastern NC was almost fired because he decided not to notify police when an old rusty BB gun was found left on a school bus. He took custody of the gun and determined there had been no report of injury or threat, but did not call the police. Only the fact that he was recently hired, and presumably not familiar with all policies, saved his job.

Posted by Larry, WI on February 13, 2010:

I hope my Grandsons do not run into this problem as both love their LEGO's and their dad is a corrections officer. The youngest grandson wants to be in law enforcement like his dad.

---

You have to do more than hope: you need to ensure the kids know that their school administrators may be irrational. They need to know that if they get into trouble, they should call their parents for help and NEVER sign a "confession" without their parents' assent. And more. -rc

Posted by Paul -- Newburgh, NY, USA on February 13, 2010:

Think of it as engendering a healthy disrespect for and distrust of authority in all of its forms.

I went through school before ZT, at least under that name, was in widespread practice. I can say stupidity of educational authorities was in place long before it became codified. How else to explain the moral primitive-ness of those school officials who could not or would not draw a distinction between starting a fight and, after taking a few blows, defending oneself. Apparently. students were and are supposed to just stand there absorbing punches and kicks (and bullets these days?) until a teacher shows up or until their tormentors get bored.

I'm not surprised that there is so much violence in schools lately, I'm just surprised that so little of it involves administrators and other overpaid drones "catching lead".

I don't know how it went where you are but the local school district had to implement an austerity budget, the only portion of the budget that didn't get cut was the administration. All of the other budget items were cut by 10-15%.

Posted by Tom in the Carolinas on February 13, 2010:

I am glad you are saying the NYC public school system seems to be trying to inject some common sense into their policy, but please please please understand that school systems, especially public ones, have their sense of values inverted.

1) Parents feel like their children are the most important things in the schools, more important than anything else.

2) But there are people in the school systems that Know The Pecking Order: there's the School Board, there's the Principal, there's the Teacher, and even the Support Staff and the Teacher Aides -- the kids are not on the pecking order at all, they'll be in another classroom next year, out of the school in a few years, and out of the system at age 18. To them, children are the -least- important things in the schools.

This has always been the case, teachers and principals willing to hurt the children because "I gotta keep my job, that's most important". Because those people won't get their pension if they don't work long enough, and if children have to be stepped on to protect the job, then so be it.

What is a parent to do? First of all, avoid the public schools if at all possible. And, wherever one sends one's kids, please please don't leave their education "on autopilot", trusting the school system to make good decisions.

The ZT thing is just one part of all that, but it sure indicates what school boards will do to avoid a lawsuit. Twist a 9 year old's arm (figuratively) to get a statement under duress? As insane as it sounds, there's a chance that piece of paper might help, so (they would think) "why not?"

Parents need to insist that the children cannot be walked on without consequences. Parents need to ensure those consequences.

Randy, thanks for taking a stand on this.

---

I wish I could argue with your points, but I cannot. I will say that I know there are good teachers, and good administrators, in the schools. But I fear they're getting more and more rare. -rc

Posted by Larry, San Francisco Bay Area on February 13, 2010:

When my daughter was in high school, she was walking into the cafeteria from outside, and was "blind-sided" by a female classmate who thought my daughter was flirting with "her guy" (who by the way had no interest in the girl). My daughter's eyes had not adjusted to the dim light in the cafeteria, so didn't see the blow coming. The classmate hit my daughter on the side of the head and ran away before my daughter even had a chance to react.

The other girl was suspended, my daughter was not, but it was noted in my daughter's transcript that she had been "fighting". Nothing I could do or say to the principal could get that note removed. My daughter wasn't fighting; she was ATTACKED by a classmate who came from a home where violence was the norm - her stepfather went to prison for trying to slit her mother's throat.

Posted by Garry, Coos Bay OR on February 13, 2010:

Please don't equate teachers (although they may have their own problems) with school administrators. In fact, teachers often despair at the decisions that school admins make (compounded by the unqualified decisions of their school boards - anyone off the street can be in charge of an entire school district, you know!) That same Battelle research that castigated school admins did separate teachers from the study. School admins were almost universally unprepared and overpaid - Battelle did say that, generally, the opposite was true of teachers - although the survey was not focused on teachers. Teachers so often get blamed for decisions made by school boards and school administrators. Just what do teachers decide to teach? Precious little. You may not realize this, but teachers pretty much teach the curriculum that they are _told_ to teach! Often much to their own disgust. Many get into trouble for _not_ teaching what they're told to teach.

Posted by Marshall, California on February 13, 2010:

rc> "a lawsuit is a long and expensive process, as we've seen in previous cases. They're not for the timid."

That's true, but in light of the school policy documentation that you've shown here, it seems like a sufficiently clear-cut case that an organization like the ACLU might be interested in taking it pro-bono. And, as I understand it, if the ACLU were to take it then there'd really be little effort needed from the family other than testifying and filling out paperwork.

Another poster suggested pursuing a criminal case against the principal for child abuse, and while it certainly wouldn't be nearly as cut and dried as the obvious civil case, it might have merit. There was certainly emotional abuse being dished out here. But it would be hard to prove that it reached a criminal level.

I truly hope that a good attorney contacts the family and offers their services pro bono.

Posted by Drew, Cleveland on February 13, 2010:

Like I said on another forum when I first saw this one, parents in these cases should repeat one thing over and over:

Your son was expelled for bringing a gun to school.

"It wasn't a gun. It was a toy."

It was a simulated gun.

"It wasn't a gun. It was a toy."

But it resembled a gun.

"It wasn't a gun. It was a toy."

But our policy says any weapons or simulated weapons are ...

"It wasn't a weapon. It was a toy."

Keep saying the same thing to the press. And to the judge when you sue their ass. Because it really is just that simple.

Posted by David, Canberra Australia on February 13, 2010:

One comment suggested citizen's arrest. Many have suggested suing. Very rarely in any forum do I see suggestions that the police themselves should arrest the teachers on the grounds of public mischief or committing a public nuisance. Charging them at the same time as the student would remove a lot of these problems - they might decide not to proceed. Holding them for as long as possible in a cell whilst having to process the student's case might also be a salutary lesson. Let's hope a few police see this comment and review their options in cases like these.

Posted by Cathi, South Amboy NJ on February 13, 2010:

OMG! The Legos are more of a weapon! Have you ever had one hit you by your kids? Does this mean that children aren't allowed to bring their thumb and pointer finger to school. I always used that as a gun, and... it does resemble one, don't you think? Maybe the boy should apply for the principal's job, he seems to have more smarts, being a Police man/woman is something to be proud of. Being a nitwit isn't.

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There have been cases of kids suspended from school for using their fingers as "guns" to play cops & robbers. I kid you not. You're going to have to come up with something even more stupid to compare with to effectively ridicule school officials. -rc

Posted by Lane, De Soto, KS on February 13, 2010:

One thing that I haven't seen noted yet in any of the comments is exactly what did the principal have the young man sign? He's not of legal age to have entered into any kind of binding written confession, agreement or contract so having him sign anything was absurd beyond the pale. Any first-year law student would be able to get that part of the whole debacle tossed.

Randy, I seem to remember one of the solutions you (I think) proposed for districts that employ ZT policies was to reduce the salaries of administrators. The rationale being that since they aren't being required to use judgment and good (I don't call it common since it's obviously not common any more) sense, they didn't justify being paid their full salaries. If a policy is in place that takes away the need for an administrator to make decisions, why pay them their full pay??

---

Schools often use such written confessions to back up suspensions -- and expulsions. But don't fool yourself: they are used in court. When the kid actually has done something criminal, it's used to back up the criminal charges. Thus, we have government employees in a position of power forcing confessions that are used in court. Constitutional rights? Kids don't need no stinking Constitutional rights! Sigh. -rc

Posted by Bill, Tahiti on February 13, 2010:

This whole thing has gone too far as is, Randy, I suggest you start a fund drive for Ms Timoney to help her hedge legal fees in the upcoming lawsuit. When you start hitting these so called administrators in the wallet and making sure it gets public notice there will be changes.One more thing - where is the NRA on this?

Posted by Jim, Texas on February 13, 2010:

That toy was as close to a being a real threat as Ms. Mastroianni is to being a qualified principal.

Posted by Mike in Michigan on February 13, 2010:

I grew up in a gun culture in Kentucky in the 1940s (before going on to graduate from Yale and become a journalist). I can recall many instances of junior and senior high school boys carrying unloaded guns to school to show off, with no harm and no evil intent. Many of these were World War II souvenirs, gifts from older brothers returning from overseas.

The only incident involving a "firearm" was when a 9th grade student brought a home-made Zip Gun to school, which fell out of his locker during the lunch break, discharging when it hit the floor and wounding him. The incident took place during the 1945-46 school year.

He had learned to make the Zip Gun from smart-alec instructions on a network radio program about gangs in New York City. A Zip Gun was constructed from a piece of pipe with the inside diameter of a .22 cartridge and a combination of rubber bands and clothes pin parts to provide a firing mechanism. Accordingly it was obviously unsafe.

That was a REAL tinker toy -- but it is doubtful if today's teachers, especially the women, would recognize it.

Further, that same 1945-6 year, the same school, Highland Junior High School in Louisville, afforded students the opportunity to display interesting guns in a locked exhibit case in the hallway outside the principal's office.

If any of those students ever became criminals, I never heard of it. But many served -- and a few died in combat -- in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Posted by Don, Ann Arbor on February 13, 2010:

Why do some positions of power attract sadistic and downright mean spirited people? Public schools have several such positions; principals and athletic coaches in my experience.

I agree that some of these should be brought to justice for child abuse. Their legal immunity should not be absolute.

Posted by Bergman, Seattle WA on February 13, 2010:

There's an interesting law on the books, that actually addresses a great number of the irrationalities of school officials. I can't recall any one incident where the law might be invoked by the strict letter, but the spirit is violated by nearly every ZT incident I've ever heard of. I'm sure Randy could point to a few strict letter of the law violations.

Title 18, Chapter 13, sections 241 and 242 of the U.S. Code. Deprivation of constitutional, civil or statutory rights under color of lawful authority. If a 9 year old can sign a confession and have it stand up in court, he could also make a citizen's arrest. Might be interesting to see how that played out...

Posted by Dan - Illinois on February 13, 2010:

It appears that many folks making comments here are mistaking ZT for being Zero Tolerance in this case. It is not about Zero Tolerance, it is about Zero Thought, which SHOULD be a criminal offense when it comes to educators behaving poorly.

Posted by Ken - Anchorage on February 13, 2010:

This principal does not have the sense of a first-grader, much less a first grade teacher. She should be arrested for abusing the boy, and then fired from her job.

Posted by ALWIEN, Long Beach CA on February 14, 2010:

How time has changed our concept of harmless play. I am 89 years old. During recess we used to play Cowboys & Indians & shoot at each other with toy guns made of wood [they did not look anything like real guns]. The ammunition was rubber bands cut out of inner tubes. [yes, back then, tires used inner tubes] The release mechanism was a clip type clothes pin.

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Yet you managed to become a productive and honest citizen. Go figure! -rc

Posted by Paul, Prague on February 14, 2010:

Good point, why wasn't the principal arrested?

Parents have been prosecuted over lesser issues of 'child abuse'.

Posted by Brian - California on February 14, 2010:

Unfortunately, the principal has exhibited the proper behavior encouraged by all government agencies. The dissolution of freedom starts in the schools with conditioning. Right out of the books of Lenin and Mao. Unless Americans start standing up for their freedom, it will be the great failed experiment that your grandchildren read about.

Posted by Drew, Cleveland on February 14, 2010:

Several people have suggested the police should also be arresting the administrators, but I've been wondering: Is it police policy to arrest anyone a school administrator tells them to, whether there is any evidence of a crime or not?

At most the Lego gun was a violation of a school policy, if it in fact prohibited anything resembling a gun. But carrying a cell phone in class is also a violation of policy in most schools. If a principal calls the police and demands they arrest a student for carrying a cell phone, would they arrest that student?

I'm not a police officer, or a criminal attorney, but I had assumed the police need to have a reasonable belief that someone has committed a crime, not just a violation of a policy. If I'm wrong about that, what other quasi-government officials have the right to order my arrest for violating a policy?

If I'm right though, then the parents should also be suing the police department for false arrest. If schools are immune to learning to use a little sense, maybe at least police departments can learn not to arrest children for carrying toys.

---

I think some posters are confusing this story -- where the boy was NOT arrested -- with another, where a girl WAS arrested. -rc

Posted by Noam from Israel on February 14, 2010:

I agree with the main points that have been made here: ZT is usually bereft of the moral and ethical underpinnings that supposedly created the policies, the perpetrators of ZT are often, well, lacking and the victims are often demeaned and humiliated for no good reason.

But I disagree on one crucial point:

I think this kid is going to be okay, despite the distress he suffered at the principal's hands.

1. Kids today deal with a lot of distress, including the kids that turn out okay. It's a necessary part of growing up. In fact, children who are too shielded don't learn to deal with real problems when they grow up.

2. The kid in this particular case (thankfully!) did not suffer any severe bodily humiliation and seems to be (based on the video) a relatively mentally stable kid.

3. This kid's parents decry ZT, are reacting in exactly the right way (even if they don't sue) in public, and probably teaching the kid how to relate to travesties of this kind. This kid is going to learn from the experience; he won't be scarred.

Obviously, not all kids have the same kind of supportive environment this one does. Also obvious, ZT mindsets will survive even the unlikely extinction of official policy.

This case should be taught to parents as an example of how they can teach their kids to handle instances of ZT. This kid's case should become the rule and not the exception.

Another lesson to be gleaned is that children should be taught to deal with these things ahead of time. Forewarned is forearmed.

Posted by Pete, Adelaide, South Australia on February 14, 2010:

The only chance this particular "weapon" has of injuring anyone is if they accidentally swallow it.

You'd think and hope that with all the tools at our disposal, the human race would be becoming more intelligent as a species. Sadly, cases like this indicate that the opposite might be true.

Posted by Alex, North Carolina on February 14, 2010:

Brian, get off the anti communist idiocy. This is not some sort of Communist plot. Lenin is dead, and so is Chairman Mao. This is just people being stupid, having been taught that guns are evil by emotional idiots, and anyone touching a gun is automagically transmuted into a serial killer.

Grumble grumble...

Posted by Bergman, Seattle WA on February 14, 2010:

To answer Pete in Adelaide:

One of the primary functions of civilization is to cooperatively protect the weaker members from things they can't handle. Ideally, everyone has strengths to go with their weaknesses, and it all evens out. But get an advanced enough civilization, and you start getting people with nothing but weaknesses, no strengths at all, who are protected as well.

Give them a few generations to breed, and the problem gets quite frightening...but any alternatives are worse.

Posted by Kim, Japan on February 14, 2010:

You know what I think is sad?

This situation completely undermines the concept of authority for not only that kid, but his parents and his friends. That kid will think of the distinct possibility that authority is "wrong" for the rest of his life. He will always look over his shoulder and wonder what is going on. In some ways, this is good, in that it IS a part of the American spirit -- question what your government is doing! -- but it is sad in that it also completely undermines the concept that authority is there to help you, not hurt you.

The problems here are not new. Things like this have always happened -- stupid authority, that is -- but when you see repeated cases, you start to wonder about the entire structure, not just individuals. Myself, I had loads of problems with my schools as a kid, mostly stemming from a bad list of factors, 1) I was smart, 2) I had physical problems (and people often equate physical to mental problems), and 3) I was overly sensitive to criticism (a "cryer").

Fortunately, I had strong parents who told the school to stuff it when their solutions were stupid or harmful... but I feel for kids who aren't so lucky. Thank goodness the boy in that story had parents who put their feet down and said, "THIS IS WRONG!" He has good parents!

My husband had worse experiences than mine, to the point where his parents gave up and home-schooled him through junior high and high school. (There were no religious reasons involved, just pure horror at the stupidity of some of his teachers.)

Right now we live in Asia. My husband is an ESL teacher, and both of us have taught kids now. Looking back at our own lives, as teachers, we STILL wonder what those teachers and administrators were thinking. You can do better than that, folks. You can THINK. You are there to teach people to learn, TO THINK. To do less is to do a disservice to your job.

...But we're thinking, when we move back, we're going to teach our kids at home. Even if they actually do get rid of the Zero Tolerance policy, I'm pretty sure my son is smarter than a lot of these administrators... and he'll be two this summer. He can definitely tell a Lego when he sees one!

Posted by Stephen, North Providence, RI on February 15, 2010:

What I was really impressed with, in this discussion, was how reasonable and comprehensive are the actual written policies of the New York City Department of Education (BTW, here is a link to their most recent policy dated September, 2009 -- it seems to be the same as the one you quoted from September, 2008).

The real problem seems to be how evident it is that some NYC school administrators have never actually read the policy. I think that this policy document could be used as a model for any school district anywhere. It is not a Zero Tolerance policy in the strict sense, but is instead a policy that is intended to force administrators to apply some level of critical thinking in order to properly assess various situations. It provides reasonable guidelines to help administrators in evaluating those situations, and attempts to make the punishment fit the crime. As you point out, the use of the word "MUST" is used in the document in sections outlining what a principal's course of action must be, so that administrators will not just simply apply their own prejudices in evaluating a situation.

Posted by Alice @ Odessa, Ukraine on February 15, 2010:

Each time I see a Zero Tolerance story on This Is True, I always think - "Wow, now that`s just demented. How in holy blazes is that kind of idiocy tolerated?" And yet, each next one easily tops the previous in the sheer depravity of logic, common sense and plain old decency.

Forget suing - how come no principals got lynched yet? If ZT stays as is, chances are someone'd see the noose before the end of year, I think.

In all honesty, the only reasonable solution I can see is to outlaw ZT policy and actually begin arresting principals instead of kids until all the stupid ones are out of schools.

Posted by Boris, Arizona on February 15, 2010:

If you REALLY want to stop ZT, then make ZT a requirement for all school personnel, including school board members.

As soon as just one of them hits the ZT wall, then the survivors will dismantle ZT for everyone.

What's good for the student is absolutely good for the "adults."

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I have made that suggestion, and have covered several stories where teachers and staff were subjected to similar policies -- and whined terribly. But indeed the rules are generally not consistently applied to the "learning" kids and the "should know by now" adults. -rc

Posted by Jon, Taiwan on February 17, 2010:

This does not seem like a ZT case to me. I thought in ZT it was someone following blindly an "established guideline." Based on the information presented here, it seems to be a person not following established guidelines. Thus not ZT. QEP

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I'm guessing you mean "QED", and your logic is faulty. The whole point of this entire essay is that even though the schools have a model policy, this principal didn't follow it, and instead used zero tolerance mentality. The question, of course, is Why?

To me, the answer is obvious: she either grew up in a school where ZT was practiced, or went to college where it was taught, so it's what she knows. I've been warning about this mentality for years: the kids that grow up in ZT environments do grow up and get jobs, and of course they then practice what they learned: the dismissal of common sense, follow the letter of the rule no matter the situation, one punishment -- the most severe -- applies no matter the situation, etc. It is truly sad that you didn't understand that point, but this is just another example the ZT outrages we will continue to see in places where ZT isn't even the stated policy. -rc

Posted by Karl (Tujunga, CA) on February 17, 2010:

The cost of a false positive (tormenting an innocent person) is much less than the cost of a false negative (missing a guilty person) so naturally they will go for overkill. -- Agagooga (Singapore)

True. One of the big problems with anything having to do with security is that all the costs incurred are incurred when the rules aren't enforced and someone gets hurt. The people who over-enforce the rules bear only minimal costs. Only when overkill becomes at least as costly as the cost when some kid manages to sneak a real weapon in, will people have any incentive to change.

Posted by Karl (Tujunga, CA) on February 17, 2010:

@Jim in Phoenix:

It's all well and good that the principal offered an apology, but I'm not sure it counts.

The formula for repentance was laid down centuries ago by the likes of Maimonides.

1) Regret: The person has to specifically state what he or she did wrong. None of those non-apology "I'm sorry if anyone was hurt" generalities. Name the actual act you're apologizing for, or it doesn't count.

2) Restitution: Make the injured party whole. In the case of this kid, tear up the "confession", expunge the incident from the record, and make a statement to everyone who has heard about it that the crime is the principal's, not the kid's.

3) Return: Make whatever changes are necessary to ensure that the offense committed is never committed again.

Were it my decision, I'd continue looking for a lawyer until all three of these steps had been taken.

---

Clearly, the mother didn't accept the apology, as she didn't consider it sincere (failed the first test above). As I said in my reply to Jim in Phoenix, she commented "I think she is sorry that this is happening. I wish she was sorry for Patrick." And clearly the second and third tests are not satisfied either, that we have heard. -rc

Posted by Bergman, Seattle WA on February 17, 2010:

Answering Karl in Tujunga:

The basis of US (and for that matter, British) law is that it is better for a guilty man to go free (for now, at least), than for an innocent man to be wrongly punished.

This has always been the case.

Posted by Rewinn, Mercer Island on February 18, 2010:

1. "She told me to write that I had a gun,"

...struck me as the saddest part of the story. The administration demanded that the kid tell a lie. What a terrible lesson for the child!

2. One reason for pressing this issue to the maximum under the law is to teach the child that, while bad things happen, parents protect their children.

3. In many parts of life, pay is related to the quality of staff. This never excuses wrongful behavior ... we're all responsible for what we do ... but perhaps we'd attract a higher quality of staff with a higher quantity of pay.

Posted by Steven, Netherlands on February 18, 2010:

Good grief. What a lowlife principal. The word obliviot barely covers her idiocy and doesn't include her evilness. I generally have a lot of respect for people in the teaching professions, but this story actually makes me hate this woman's guts.

Posted by Debi, Tampa FL on February 19, 2010:

ZT has been a topic of discussion in my house for a while now, as my 11 year old middle school student has started reporting things that he saw as unfair. A student drops a cough drop, another student picks it up to return it to the one who dropped it and both get sent to the principal's office for "distributing" drugs. Our school administrators apparently have heads on their shoulders, however, since the only thing he heard was from the students that they got sent back to class without even a warning for the behavior. Because of these situations though, my "tween" is having to learn to tiptoe around people.

And now my children's father and I have to find a way to explain to our Kindergarten, 4th and 6th graders how to determine the difference between signing their homework agreements and signing a written confession. "If the teacher says 'Sign here to say you did your homework'... okay. If someone says 'Sign here that you did a very bad thing'... call Mom and Dad."

Innocence is being lost left and right as it is and now I'm forced to strip more of it in order to protect my children from a growing ridiculous trend. We have to teach our children to know their rights and to walk on eggshells because the people we entrust them to for a huge portion of their waking lives are becoming less and less trustworthy.

---

I agree it's ridiculous. I also agree it's necessary until school officials grow up! -rc

Posted by Andrew, Melbourne Australia on February 19, 2010:

As a current school principal I was incredulous reading this story. What a total lack of common sense this principal has. I had to read the story out to my wife who is also a teacher~ a shake of the head and a roll of the eyes.

Apart from her total lack of judgement, in dealing with such an innocuous situation and making a Mt Everest out of a tiny ant hill, of great concern is her treatment of 9 y.o. Patrick. Her hysterical and disproportionate response will have brutalised Patrick and could have a long-term negative affect on his attitude to school and his long term education. One would hope that a principal would have a sense of restorative justice for more serious incidents than this where none was shown at all.

On further reflection I also wonder why it was even brought to the principal's attention as it is stated "the boy was hauled into the principal's office." A staff member has also displayed total lack of judgement and understanding; there is something in the culture of school staff that needs to be suspended!

Posted by Betty, Indiana on February 19, 2010:

ZT run rampant!

As I read this, I couldn’t help but think back to when our son was around 2 years old. His baby sitter wanted to give him a "cowboy" gun. Darling Daddy didn't like the idea and said no.

Not long after that during breakfast, I noticed something odd... Son had nibbled his toast into the shape of a gun and was taking aim! Dad relented on the prohibition!

Can't help but wonder what Ms. M would have done with this little critter and his gun!

Posted by Uncle John - UK on February 20, 2010:

I am assuming that (even in NY) 9-year old are not licenced to 'carry guns' so IF the object was 'a gun', possession would be a crime? Does State/Federal law allow adults having authority over minors to force 'confession' to what amounts to criminal conduct without the presence of a truly independent witness/monitor?

Posted by Marc in Santa Cruz on February 21, 2010:

Posted by Betty, Indiana on February 19, 2010: "ZT run rampant!

"As I read this, I couldn’t help but think back to when our son was around 2 years old. His babysitter wanted to give him a "cowboy" gun. Darling Daddy didn't like the idea and said no.

"Not long after that during breakfast, I noticed something odd... Son had nibbled his toast into the shape of a gun and was taking aim! Dad relented on the prohibition!"

As a child of the '70s in the San Francisco Bay Area, it will probably not surprise anyone that my parents were peacenik hippies.

My mother resisted all attempts by my grandparents and uncles to give me toy guns, preferring "peaceful, creative" toys like Lego blocks. She relented on the issue when she discovered that I was using the Legos to construct... yep, that's right, Evil Guns! (and so for my birthday that year I got a Lone Ranger cap pistol and rifle - and no, I did not shoot my eye out!)

Then again, I carried a pocketknife to school daily from fourth grade on, after joining the Cub Scouts (and later Boy Scouts). Had today's ZT policies been in effect, no doubt I'd have been either treated as young Patrick was, or expelled, as it was a real knife.

To sum up:
1) It's very difficult to get young boys to not play with toy guns in some form, and
2) ZT is, of course, stupid.

Posted by Bergman, Seattle WA on February 21, 2010:

To answer Uncle John:

The problem is, the police typically view a public school (something different in the US than in the UK) as a civilian institution, not a government agency. The courts often refuse to accept jurisdiction over schools entirely. This results in the schools having all the advantages of a government agency (limited legal immunity, difficult to sue, able to make arbitrary near-judicial rulings upon children, etc.) but lacking any of the checks and balances a government agency normally has.

In theory, given the way that most districts are structured, school district personnel are the employees of a legislative branch office (the elected school board). This means they lack law enforcement powers (an executive branch legal power), which is why you see what is commonly called a School Resource Officer assigned to the school (a uniformed or plainclothes police officer, whose job it is to either hang around all day or be on-call to that school as their main priority). In theory, while a legislative body could ask police to arrest someone, they themselves cannot legally force a confession, and are bound (as a subordinate body to the federal Congress) by the same legal restrictions that bind the federal Congress. In practice, very few of them have apparently even read the Constitution, many of those who have apparently disagree with large chunks of it, and as a result, they enact "legislation" or regulations that violate the law, but because courts refuse to assert jurisdiction, the schools get away with it.

In the absence of any oversight or checks and balances, the schools tend to act as if they are above all laws except those they enact themselves.

I still maintain that a lot of the silliness might be abolished, if people started making citizen's arrests of so-called educators, when the educators commit the sorts of trumped-up offenses that children are expelled or arrested for.

Posted by Rhi in Ohio on February 26, 2010:

I have to say after reading this article that I am reminded of when I attended Catholic school. I attended the same school that my mother worked at. She was the librarian there and if myself or one of my brothers got into trouble, she was sure to hear of it. There was no hiding it. If we were in trouble it was one thing, if we truly were not at fault, she would have gone to bat for us like nothing else.

At the same time, Catholic schools were often known for being strict and sometimes even harsh when it came to discipline. Granted I only attended a Catholic school from k-8, but my time there was memorable to say the least. I went on to attend a public high school for the visual and performing arts and even that school had high disciplinary standards.

I remember at school, the boys would often play a type of war game. They would run around and pretend to "shoot" each other by making a gun shape with their hands. It was all in fun then. They never actually brought a gun to school and never shot anyone at school. No one accused them of anything other than playing and they were never suspended or suffered any disciplinary actions as a result.

I still live in the same town and I have never heard of any of my classmates being arrested for a gun related crime. I used to play war with my brothers when I was a kid and I never went that route either.

At the high school I attended, for the last day of the my senior school year we had a water gun fight right on the campus. It was no big deal.

As far as people creating the ZT policies. They seem to think that school shootings are a recent phenomenon. They are not. There is a long history of school violence that includes shootings, stabbings and bombings.

This did not start with Columbine. This has been around about as long as there have been schools in this country. Which is a very long time indeed.

I have often preached that common sense is the most uncommon of all senses. Stories like this seem to prove my point all the time. People need to be taught common sense just like they are taught to speak, walk, read, write, etc. I shudder to think what just how bad this can get as it seems to be getting worse and worse every day.

I have sent a link to this page via email to most everyone I know. Especially my mother since she recently retired. The school she retired from is a Catholic school. They also have a very strict disciplinary code. The difference is, they actually use common sense.

Cell phones are not allowed in classrooms, but if you are on an insulin pump, you will not even be accused to trying to send text messages because the teacher will see that the device you are using is in no way a cell phone. I have a friend whose daughter attends a public school and uses an insulin pump. This poor child was accused to sending text messages because she was adjusting the settings on her pump - those settings are what keeps her alive and healthy. She was suspended.

You had better believe that her mother rose to her defense on this matter. The school later issued an apology and did revoke the suspension. This happened after her mother brought in additional documentation proving that the device was, indeed, an insulin pump. This should never have gotten to that stage. If you have ever seen an insulin pump, you will realize just what I mean. For those of you that have not, the device has a display and a few buttons to adjust the dosage of insulin. That is it. There is no keypad of numerals or letters.

I just had to share this with you because I know that if we keep heading down the dark path of ZT, there will be a day soon where even though it is an insulin pump and it is delivering life saving medication to a child, there will be some obliviot school official who will say something like, “medication is a drug and a drug is a drug is a drug”. And That makes me sad and angry.

---

You do know, I suppose, that children have died because their schools insisted that their rescue inhalers had to be kept in the nurse's office, and they couldn't get help in time when the child had an asthma attack? Simply because the schools felt they must keep those "drugs" (eek! evil!) under lock and key. -rc

Posted by Antonio, Baltimore, MD on February 28, 2010:

I think that all this discussion of unthinking administrators and incompassionate principals ignores the root cause of the problem. These people aren't evil (OK, some of them certainly are), but they definitely aren't smart, and above all, they are all cowards.

The reason we have ZT rules isn't safety, isn't compassion, isn't common sense. It's pure and simply CYA politics: cover your ass.

It's not about actually creating a safe school environment. It's about leaving a paper trail that shows there is nothing more they could have done to prevent a tragedy. By applying anything less than the most severe punishment available by policy, they open themselves to future accusations of "leniency" or "negligence" when an incident does occur. *

What does this boil down to? The root cause is the same as with a lot of problems in USA: lawsuits, and a culture that always wants to shift the blame to someone else. If school shootings were simply treated as what they are (an individual or group of individuals with severe problems, be they justified or not) and not what they aren't (somebody else's problem), we wouldn't be having ZT nightmares. It's an unreasonable expectation for a school to identify every student with problems -- it's an impossible task to identify who will become violent.

If there is a bright side to all this, it is that ZT might cause people to become untrusting of authority: IMHO, our government has become too powerful and meddles in far too many things.

*Note that this paragraph could apply 100% to airport security theater, too.

Posted by Karl (Tujunga, CA) on March 1, 2010:

@Rhi in Ohio: As part of the school's action, the teacher should have been required to write "An insulin pump is not a text messaging device" 1000 times on a chalk board. At the very least.

As long as there's no cost incurred by the teacher, this will keep happening.

Posted by Mike from Dallas on March 1, 2010:

For several years I've wondered just what the purpose is, anymore, for our schools. Is it to educate? Or a competition to rack up some impressive record of suspensions and expulsions? As a business owner with contacts among hundreds of community parents, I've seen that many suspensions are retaliatory actions against parents for the High Crime of failure to comply with schools' Draconian demands of cooperation. Such demands are too numerous to include here, although I'll be happy to submit a list if requested.

And now today I read a Forbes article from AP in which the President proposes that the federal government pay school districts to lower the drop-out rate.

I have a better and cheaper idea: How about NOT spending more money, and just have the schools rescind their atmosphere of fear and punishment for non-crimes that encourages drop-outs to begin with.

In all fairness, the President's proposal does include the contention that most of the targeted schools must fire the principal and at least half of the staff, and some districts will need total replacement of the administration.

But, sadly, such a proposal will not happen. Or if it does, the final version will be so watered down that only the money will be distributed with none of the fixes to actually make it work. Because, you see, it's not just the schools, but all the people who believe that the ends justifies the means, especially if it's rationalized that it's for the "greater good." Or those who cede authority to others because "really, it's for our OWN good, after all."

Posted by Hardy - Lake Charles on March 19, 2010:

When they quit letting kids--of course, I'm referring to boys--take their guns to school, they ruined this country. When I was a kid, all took our guns to school and did "show and tell" about them, and compared them during Rod and Gun Club. Of course, that was before the days of intergrated schools. I suppose that could have had a lot to do with prohibiting kids--again, I refer to the boys--from bringing their guns to school.

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