In New Jersey, Glen Meadow Middle School has added its own bizarre entry in the ever-lengthening list of zero tolerance insanity. According to Ethan Chaplin, he was suspended for twirling a pencil in math class. He says that a student (who had been allegedly bullying him) yelled to the teacher that “He’s making gun motions, send him to juvie.” The school responded by suspending Chaplin and the Vernon Schools Superintendent Charles Maranzano insists that it is the only appropriate response because he must investigate any time that a student claims to be uncomfortable or threatened by another student.
Chaplin’s father, Michael Chaplin, was so outraged that he took the step of recording a conversation between himself, the school’s principal and guidance counselor — and then posted it on YouTube. It is not clear from the article if this was done with consent but the absence of any allegation of unlawful recording suggests that it was a legal or consensual taping.
Michael Chaplin said that he was told that his son would have to be evaluated by a therapist and cleared as a threat before being able to be around students. This resulted in a five-hour physical and psychological evaluation and allegedly his son being required to strip give blood and urine samples. He says that a social worker actually only spoke with him for a few minutes after the tests and cleared him.
I have long criticized zero tolerance policies that have led to suspensions and arrests of children (here, here and here and here and here). Here is a prior column on the subject (and here).Children have been suspended or expelled for drawing stick figures or wearing military hats or bringing Legos shaped like guns or even having Danish in the shape of a gun. Even a student who prevented another student from continuing to cut himself was suspended for taking possession of the razor and dispensing it. Despite the public outcry over the completely irrational and abusive application of zero tolerance rules, administrators and teachers continue to apply them blindly. If you do not have to exercise judgment, you can never been blamed for any failure. Conversely, even when the public outcry results in a reversals, teachers and administrators never seem punished with the same vigor for showing no judgment or logic in punishing a child.
What I am unclear about is the absence of any discussion of witnesses. Surely, despite the superintendent’s statement, there is some basic duty of inquiry – particularly when the act allegedly occurs in a classroom. There is also no word on what the obligations of a school might be when there is a false allegation. My assumption is that no actions are taken to encourage students to come forward to report bullying. However, if this is true, then there should be greater emphasis on an initial investigation.
Putting aside these issues, one towering problem remains. The allegation, according to the family, was that Chaplin was using a pencil in a mock gun movement. We have seen a slew of finger gun cases resulting in suspensions under the same strained logic. Even if you believe the other student, is that really a cause for suspension?