There have been a few developments, and some constructive editorializing, since we last discussed the two third-graders who were arrested in Ocala, Florida, for drawings that the school authorities and police deemed to be threatening the life of another student. (Mike posted here, attracting a lengthy comment or two from me.)
WFTV.com reported (Jan. 31, 2005):
The Marion County School District has reassigned two third graders to another school after they drew threatening pictures of a classmate.
The boys were suspended for four days and were allowed to return to school Monday, but only one chose to do so.
A judge issued a "no contact order" for the two special education students, which means they can't return to the same class as the victim.
(WFTV is holding a survey Was Drawing The Pictures A Criminal Act?; so far, 31% of respondents said yes.)
In an editorial titled "Call the parents before police," the St. Petersburg Times states (Feb. 2, 2005) notes that
"Ocala police have defended their decision by saying they saw three signs of possible trouble: the boys had acted to intimidate their victim all year; one of the arrested boys had previously stabbed a different student with a pencil and the drawings reminded some of the early warning signs seen before the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.
"But another motivation for the arrest emerged during a conversation Monday with Ocala Police Sgt. Russ Kern. "(If an attack occurred), no one wanted to be the one left saying, "We saw this and we did nothing.'"
The editorial concludes:
In the Ocala case, charging such young children with a felony for their drawing aggravates a problem rather than solves one. The choice was not between doing nothing and calling in the police. There are instances when police are needed to handle violent students and charge them with crimes, but the available evidence indicates this is not one of them.
Sun-Sentinel columnist Sherri Winston concludes (Feb. 2, 2005):
"Something must be done to tame the Zero Tolerance virus that has been let loose in Florida schools. Common sense is the likely vaccine, but much like flu shots were a few months ago, common sense remains in short supply.
"Once upon a time, art and journals were considered a healthy way for young people to express anger and frustration they couldn't show in their regular lives. . . .
"But as for the kids in Ocala, maybe that drawing was their way of saying, "If it weren't wrong, I'd like to knock you in the head, but I'm not going to. I'm just going to draw you a picture!"
"No matter their intent, with the police involved and media buzzing, two grade-school kids will be forced to adapt adult demeanors and rationales to their childish behavior. I think that's too much to ask."
Winston calls the drawings "a prank," but I believe that intentionally scaring another child with threats of death is more than a prank. This was not merely a matter of boys drawing a scene with generic stick characters fighting, or depicting themselves as heroes.
The threatened boy needed to know that the authorities took his fears seriously -- especially given prior incidents of bullying by the pair. The school needed to make it plain to the students that their conduct was serious and unacceptable. Calling in the police to talk with the boys, in order to help them understand the graveness of the situation may have made sense -- as surely would have happened if the school had its own assigned "community" officer. Clearly the parents should have been called, too. However, arresting the two third-graders for a felony -- or any offense, unless there are more facts that we do not know -- was excessive.
"Zero Tolerance" should never mean Zero Judgment or Zero Common Sense.