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Targeting our children

Ella Peterson
By Ella Peterson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, October 28, 2005
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When today's undergraduates were in elementary school, paper airplanes, toy guns and harmless pranks were part of the territory.

We played Red Rover on the playground; jungle gyms were sites of intricate power struggles. Teasing was rarely kind, and "fair" was in the eye of whoever held the four square ball. We played hard and fell hard. But the playground is a different place these days.

Today's zero-tolerance policies in all their myriad forms play a certain role in bringing about a drop in crime, making schools safer, cleaning up public transport and determining terrorist threats.

However, in one sense, such a blanket solution to individualized problems often smacks of injustice and fear. Nowhere is the ridiculousness of removing individual discretion more apparent than with regard to minors.

In New Jersey, an 8-year-old playing cops and robbers was arrested for threatening to kill fellow students with his pretend gun, an L-shaped piece of paper. Similarly, a 10-year-old in Alabama was arrested for possessing a squirt gun on school property.

Whether or not the possession of such toys on school campuses should result in suspension or expulsion is certainly a matter for reasonable debate. The safety of school children is an admirable objective, but there is something gravely amiss when students are arrested for such dubious misdeeds as these.

This overcompensation for slight offenses is not restricted to matters concerning weapons or imitations thereof. Orange alert-level paranoia has penetrated beyond airports and mailboxes and settled over elementary schools, lunchrooms and basketball courts. Children can be reported to Homeland Security for repeating words they barely understand, picked up from parental conversations.

A 12-year-old Louisiana boy told the students in the lunch line ahead of him to leave some potatoes, or "I'm going to get you." He spent two weeks in jail awaiting a hearing for making a terrorist threat.

Blanket solutions to individualized problems often smack of injustice and fear.

If the principals of old had reported every angry schoolyard yell as a terrorist threat, many of the brightest students of America would have had early, ugly contact with the side of the system you only see when you are the enemy.

Different approaches to school discipline are necessary; reprimands should be an opportunity for guidance, not a sentencing. The boundaries of society and acceptable behavior are learned in the formative years, and it is absurd to consider condemning a child for childish behavior.

Administrators, teachers, policy-makers and the adults need to stop being afraid of the children. They detect the fear, the underlying qualms of what they may be capable of, and it gives them a sense of power over those who should hold authority.

This subliminal fear contributes to an image in the public psyche, a perception of school children as manipulative, budding criminals. Such a skewed assessment is damaging to the policies determining how our country raises its next generations.

The trend toward judging children as adults, in the court systems and otherwise, is a disturbing one and should be evaluated closely. The age break between the two distinctions is being blurred: A 16-year-old and a 15-year-old, both charged with murder, may find themselves cellmates in an adult prison. They are just as likely, however, to meet again in a juvenile detention center or even be split between the two.

Depending on the depravity of the crime and the level of consciousness determined in the offender, sometimes this crossover to adult punishment may be warranted. However, there are certain unequivocal situations in which inappropriate actions are impossible to ignore. Police resorting to handcuffs when overwhelmed by a little girl's tantrum is simply unacceptable.

We have become hesitant; our society has forgotten how to approach children, how to teach them, so we lean on an overly harsh policy to do the work for us. But it's time to bring back the confidence, the compassion but also the firm hand of purposeful, discretionary authority.

Zero-tolerance policies look good on paper, and sound good in theory; however, when implemented against minors, they end up being indiscriminate and frequently scarring. A child's first interaction with law enforcement should not be memories of terror at the hands of police for throwing a paper airplane.

Ella Peterson is a creative writing junior. She can be reached at

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