(This post was co-authored by Evelyn B. Stacey, Education Studies Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California.)
Last week the story of 6-year-old Zachary Christie was in the media spotlight, including the New York Times, Chicago Sun Times, and even in Trend Daily News in Azerbaijan. The boy was initially expelled for bring a camping utensil-a fork, knife, and spoon in one in his school lunch. The first-grader was suspended for 45 days under the zero-tolerance policy implemented in Christine Elementary School in Delaware. Though the school board has rescinded the suspension, this is not an isolated incident of good intentions gone awry. Similar stories in the Sacramento Bee and the Philadelphia Inquirer have brought attention to the failure of a bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all school safety policy. Consider, 80 percent of public schools nationwide have a zero-tolerance policy, dating back to the federal Gun-Free School Act of 1994. Surely we can do better than protecting students from Eagle Scouts or Cub Scouts armed with forks and spoons-especially since actual dangers at school exist. But you wouldn’t know it from the more recent federal school safety mandate. Less than 50 public schools nationally are deemed persistently dangerous each year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which means students in truly dangerous schools with real weapons and physical violence are denied their Unsafe School Choice Option transfer rights under NCLB. Since 2003, only Georgia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, and Puerto Rico have ever labeled any schools persistently dangerous–though it is hard to believe that schools in Los Angeles, Detroit, or Phoenix are really safer. A growing number of government officials and education experts are clamoring for reform-chief among them, replacing senseless bureaucratic labels with meaningful information that parents can use to decide for themselves whether a school is safe enough for their child.