Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Student Arrests Test Rules of a Post-Columbine World

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Student Arrests Test Rules of a Post-Columbine World

Article excerpt

Almost six years have passed since the Columbine massacre prompted American schools to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to students' misbehavior. Where the threat of a detention might once have been used to control an unruly student, a teacher today is as likely to call for a police cruiser.

Now, three recent episodes in Florida elementary schools in which police handcuffed and removed children as young as 6 are crystallizing a national debate on finding a proper and practical balance between safety and tolerance. To school officials and safety advocates, such stepped-up vigilance - and discipline - is the only way to protect students from another Columbine. But to critics, incidents such as those in Florida are disturbing examples of how administrators have grown overzealous in their responses to classroom doodles and rumors of violent schemes.

"Tough criminal sanctions are absurd at that age," says Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. "Florida is not alone. There are still many places in the country where adults are completely losing their bearings."

In Melbourne, Fla., two officers from the Cocoa Police Department were called to Endeavour Elementary School, where a 6-year-old boy had thrown a tantrum and struck a teacher. He then hit one officer on the head with a book. Brevard County prosecutors have placed a felony battery charge under review.

In Ocala, boys aged 9 and 10 were suspended from school after police arrested them on charges of making a written threat to kill or harm another person in the form of a stick-figure drawing of themselves stabbing a third pupil. Teachers called in sheriff's deputies when the picture was discovered.

In the third Florida incident, an adult felony-assault charge is pending against a 9-year-old boy alleged to have tried to cut a fellow pupil's finger with a pair of scissors during an art class. The boy, who has a history of disruption at Fort McCoy Elementary School, also in Marion County, is currently on home detention.

Sue Mosley, chair of the county school board, says she backs the schools' decisions to call for police assistance. "We have had a number of situations in our schools over the last year, and we will call law enforcement every time to be on the safe side," she says, pointing out the risk and worry that a more violent incident could follow infractions like these.

"We found out from a teacher and the mother that the boy who reported the stick drawings had been bullied for months," Ms. Mosley continues. "Children must know that they are coming to school to get an education, and nothing else."

Mr. Schwartz, however, believes the schools' responses was disproportionate, given the children's ages and alleged misdeeds.

"The fact they were all arrested is what concerns me most," he says. …

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