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A Return to Sanity? Lawmakers Push Back Against Zero-Tolerance Abuses

Friday, February 7, 2014

We've all seen warning labels on products that leave us scratching our heads and wondering, is that really necessary?  A popular sleeping pill, for example, cautions it may cause drowsiness.  Chainsaws have stickers admonishing users not to hold the saw by the blade.  A certain hand-held hairdryer even contains an advisory that it is not for use while sleeping.

Although most people could figure these things out for themselves, many of these labels likely come with a back story too bizarre for ordinary imaginations to conceive.

Such is the case with  Florida HB 7029, which on Wednesday passed out of the House Education K-12 Subcommittee by a 13-0 vote on its way to introduction.  Some are simply calling it the "Pop-Tart" Bill or the "Right to be Kids" Act.  We might well wish that those who educate and oversee America's children during the school day would instinctively understand that a toaster pastry could not reasonably be mistaken for a handgun, but a mounting list of back stories have unfortunately proven otherwise. Thus, HB 7029 emphasizes the need for often well-intentioned but increasingly overzealous educators to pause, take a breath, and consider the facts before mindlessly applying "zero tolerance" disciplinary polices aimed at keeping harmful weapons out of schools.

A number of illustrative absurdities have been chronicled on this site and the pages of other media outlets.  Besides the infamous Pop Tart incident, students have received suspensions and other harsh disciplinary actions, sometimes involving the police, for such "infractions" as pointing pencils or fingers at each other while making "shooting" sounds, drawing a stick figure with a gun (and a water gun at that, according to the seven-year-old "perpetrator"), and having a picture of a gun as a screensaver on a computer.  Students have also been punished--and, yes, arrested--for incidents arising out of NRA or firearm-themed t-shirts.  Not only are graphics on cloth objectively unable to cause physical harm, such attire can be constitutionally protected speech, according to prominent civil rights attorney Chuck Michel.

It's enough to make a person think that what's really being punished is any action or expression that suggests the idea of a gun, even if it is not disruptive or threatening.  In other words, what started out as policies aimed at gun crime have degenerated into a form of thought crime.

Thanks to this long train of abuses, HB 7029 would enshrine in statute the principle: "Simulating a firearm or weapon while playing or wearing clothing … that depict[s] a firearm or weapon or express[es] an opinion regarding a right guaranteed by the Second  Amendment  … is not grounds for  disciplinary action or referral [for prosecution]" under Florida statutes that prohibit "[b]ringing a firearm or weapon … to school …."  The bill goes further by specifically mentioning examples of presumptively innocent conduct, including "[b]randishing a partially consumed pastry … [v]ocalizing an imaginary firearm or weapon … [or] [d]rawing a picture, or possessing an image, of a firearm or weapon." 

The bill is not, however, intended to create yet another legislative straightjacket and allows educators to take into account the individual circumstances of an event.  Thus, they can still act if a simulation "substantially disrupts student learning, causes bodily harm to another person, or places another person in reasonable fear of bodily harm."  The bill also does not prohibit schools from adopting a policy requiring the wearing of uniforms.

Florida, moreover, is not the only state to be considering a bill of this sort.  A similar measure is pending in Oklahoma.   

We don't celebrate the fact that egg cartons now bear the warning, "This product may contain eggs."  Similarly, the abuses that necessitated these bills do not speak well of level-headedness (or the lack thereof) in today's schools.  We can only hope that these measures will have a moderating effect well beyond their jurisdictions and remind all concerned of the need for simple commonsense and the recognition that while kids will be kids, adults should aim higher with their own decision making.

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