Two years before 9/11 came a gruesome homegrown terrorist incident at Columbine High School in Colorado: Two seniors murdered 12 of their fellow students and one teacher, and then committed suicide. The conservative response to that was "zero tolerance." No guns and knives allowed in school, of course, but also no punching, no bullying, no threats, no hate or dislike messages, no bad behavior, period.
Nevertheless, threatening actions continued. A 2007 national survey of public high school students showed that 6 percent had carried a weapon onto school property during the previous month, and 8 percent were threatened by or injured with a weapon on school property during the previous year. Meanwhile, "zero tolerance" in Colorado means that students there face ticketing or criminal charges for scrawling doodles on a desk, accidentally hitting a teacher with a beanbag chair, or taking a stick of gum from a teacher's purse.
Does "zero tolerance" go too far? Probably, since kids will be kids, and they shouldn't be treated like killers when they act like goofballs. A Texas study showed that one-third of middle and high school students had been suspended or expelled at least once, and the average was four times each. That shows how deep the problems of public schools are, but also how hard it is to be a public school teacher.
Late last month a study funded by leftist libertarian George Soros broadly attacked the school security policies of the past 10 years. The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, the Associated Press, and dozens of other organs gave it wide, positive publicity. In the absence of new school terrorist incidents, schools will face pressure to ease up, and maybe they should. But our society's tendency, especially when adept PR folks develop a campaign, is to go to extremes-so watch to see whether some school districts swing from "zero tolerance" to "anything goes."
It's easy to go too far one way or the other. If we over-protect our children, we create fearful adults. If we react to online immorality by banning internet use, we foster ignorance. If we over-react to bad movies and music by forbidding most watching and listening, we create rebellion. But if we're too loose, children lose.
Psalm 23's walk through the valley of death makes me think of treading a narrow footpath across a gorge, with falling off one side or the other a likelihood-apart from God's protection. In combating school terrorism or the adult kind, we can err through laxness that invites attack or over-tightness that creates a police state. Pray for wisdom.