Does 'Zero Tolerance' Go Too Far?

zero tolerance
Educators, lawmakers, community activists and others will gather next week in Washington to debate the now-common policy of "zero tolerance" for misbehavior in school.

Some now think this is a classic example of a good idea taken too far, CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports.

Six-year-old Timeer Crosby attends school in Harrisburg, Pa. He was the subject of a school board hearing because of something he brought to school.

To the untrained eye, it appears he had a toenail clipper.

But the school board thought otherwise.

"This is not about a toenail clipper! This is about the attachments on a toenail clipper!" an unidentified board member insisted.

With the clipper comes a nail file, and a nail file is like a two-inch knife, and that's a weapon.

Timeer was found guilty and given a 10-day suspension— just one more example of justice under the "zero tolerance" policies now sweeping gun-jittery American school systems.

These policies don't just suggest, but require mandatory suspensions for any and all security infractions, even when the teacher feels the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

Traumatized by real school shootings and threats, even a poor joke is grounds for dismissal now. Eagle Scout, Chess Club president and class valedictorian Dana Heitner learned that the hard way when he parodied a bomb movie in school election posters. No police were called and the school wasn't emptied, but officials were not amused.

"It was a threat and all threats are taken seriously," said Michele Hummel, Superintendent, Maderia Schools in Cincinnati.

"I don't think people want to send their children to school if they think the leadership of the school isn't going to take every threat seriously," said Hummel.

But Heitner and his parents argue that "zero tolerance" really means "zero discretion" and that an imagined threat now gets treated the same as a real one.

"It doesn't teach anything. It doesn't help anything. I think that 'zero tolerance,' above all, is a policy that's intended to protect school boards and superintendents from legal review," said Heitner.

It's a tough call. Many Americans would rate school safety as perhaps their number one social concern. And they believe no step is too severe to make the classroom safe.

Yet, at the same time, there is growing anecdotal evidence that some schools are simply using that concern as an excuse to get rid of difficult students.

And nowhere is that more evident than among African-American students. Some Mississippi girls weren't just suspended, but arrested for what amounted to scuffling in a hallway.

"Teenagers! Typical teenagers, doin' things that we did when we were growing up and things the judge did when he was growing up," said Wanda Moore, the mother of one of the expelled girls.

And critics say it's no mistake that more black and Latino school districts than white ones have instituted zero tlerance policies, even though not one of the recent mass school shootings has been at the hands of a minority student.

"These zero tolerance polices are putting an enormous number of children at risk because they've run amok. They've become too extreme," according to Harvard Law School Professor Chris Edley.

"They've gone beyond guns and knives to water pistols and butter knives and Tylenol, and just ordinary school yard brawls," said Edley.

All of which has turned what once was handled by a trip to the principal's office into a call for the cops.