Column: Absurd policy punishes ‘poor judgment’ too severely

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 19, 2002

Have you ever known an 11th-grader who didn’t use &uot;poor judgment&uot; once in a while?&t;!—-&t;.

Saturday, January 19, 2002

Have you ever known an 11th-grader who didn’t use &uot;poor judgment&uot; once in a while?

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When I was an 11th-grader, I sure did. I spent too much time playing video games, did stupid things while driving, skipped my homework to hang out with friends, and the like. And as 11th-grader stuff goes, that’s all pretty tame.

I had a friend in high school who was governed by poor judgment. My favorite story about him: One day, when he was leaving his job at the local grocery store, he ran out of the door gleefully, raced across the parking lot to his car – a little hatchback – and leapt up onto the back window. I don’t know what he expected to happen, but he weighed a good 170 pounds, and he crashed right through the window. Cut his arm up pretty good.

This same friend, a year or so later, was riding with some buddies in a car when he somehow thought it appropriate to toss his empty plastic Gatorade bottle out the window. It soared in a high arc and crashed down onto the windshield of the car behind thiers, somehow cracking the glass. The driver was infuriated, and chased my friends around the Twin Cities for a good hour or two before finally cornering them at a red light, at which point he punched out the driver’s side window.

Why did my friend do things like these? Well, you could make a case for a certain degree of mental instability, but basically, it was because he was 17, immature, and subject to poor judgment.

Like most teenagers, he grew up, moved on, and his life is pretty normal now.

But what happens when a teen-ager runs into a mindlessly strict school policy that slaps one lapse in judgment with more punishment than even the most strict person would find reasonable?

In Litchfield, Minn. this week, two 11th-graders were expelled by the school board for bringing a gun onto school property. It was not because they were going to shoot anybody; it was an unloaded rifle one student had forgotten to take out of his car after he had gone hunting.

The punishment for this innocent forgetfulness? Immediate expulsion from school. A friend of his, who had taken the rifle at one point and then returned it to the other car, was also expelled.

There are a lot of 11th graders who do a lot worse things than accidentally leave an unloaded gun in their trunk after a hunting trip. Some get pregnant or impregnate somebody; some use alcohol or other drugs; some shoplift or get in fights or vandalize school property. The punishment for these kids? Well, if they’re caught, they might face criminal penalties, but within the watered-down juvenile system. They could catch heat with parents. If they’re in sports, they might have to sit out a few games. But none of them are looking at expulsion, at least not on the first offense.

As for the Litchfield kids, the superintendent said the students were not &uot;trouble makers&uot; – they were typically well-behaved kids. But obviously, he said, they used poor judgment.

The students have been &uot;home bound&uot; since being suspended last month, and will recieve tutoring. The district is looking at education options for the students, including open enrollment into a different district. In other words, these kids made one mistake that got them banished from their hometown district forever, but they’re good enough to be in some other district. If they’re good enough to go to school somewhere else, they are obviously not considered dangerous to their classmates or to the educational process.

They just used poor judgment once.

Their punishment is going to have a profound effect. It’s going to be on their records. It’s going to hurt their chances of going to college. At the least, in the short-term, it’s separating them from their school and their classes and the teachers and friends they’ve come to know. Being expelled from school is a big deal.

And it’s all because of a zero-tolerance policy that allows no room for common sense. We’re so scared of mixing schools and guns that a kid can be disciplined for drawing a picture of a gun, or pointing a finger at a friend and saying &uot;bang, bang.&uot;

Nobody wants guns in schools. But there’s a big difference between what happened in Littleton and what happened in Litchfield.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.