When Zero-Tolerance Policies Lose

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by Whymrhymer

An Associated Press story out of Portsmouth, Rhode Island tells the tale of Patrick Agin, a Portsmouth High School student who has a passion for all things medieval. He and others in an association he belongs to, the Society for Creative Anachronism, study and recreate the lives and times of knights in armour by learning associated skills and crafts and by staging shows and events, including mock battles between hundreds of “knights.”

Sounds like a fun and interesting hobby but Patrick made the mistake of taking his hobby to school with him, at least in a sense. As most students do, the seventeen-year old submitted a photo for inclusion in the next edition of his high school’s yearbook; Patrick’s photo however, showed him wearing chain-mail armour and brandishing a sword. Patrick’s high school rejected the photo, citing their “zero tolerance policy” for weapons as an official reason. Patrick, his family and the other members of the Society for Creative Anachronism are, with the help of the ACLU, suing the school and insisting that Patrick’s picture be used in the yearbook. The basis of their Federal lawsuit is the claim that the school is violating Patrick’s right to free speech.

This may seem like a rather “silly little” story but it raises at least one very interesting question: Can a school’s zero-tolerance policy against weapons reasonably extend to pictures of weapons? Can, in other words, your son or daughter possibly get suspended or even arrested (some schools immediately call the police for policy infractions) for simply carrying a picture in his or her backpack of James Bond with his smoking gun or some Japanese warrior with his sword, or even a magazine that has a simple picture of a weapon? Also, as Patrick’s mother, Heidi Farrington, suggests, this kind of unrealistic interpretation of the policy could even lead the school to ban literary masterpieces like Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” or Romeo and Juliet — both of which involve weapons in their main plots.

Most of us who have or have had children in school in the past decade have run across, and perhaps butted heads with, some very ‘interesting’ zero-tolerance policies. I think most rational people would agree that while this policy against having weapons in school is needed, a picture of a weapon is not a weapon and should not be subject to the same rules.

However: The school should certainly be under no obligation to accept any picture a student submits as a year book photo — accepting Patrick’s “Knight” picture could force the year book to print all sorts of absurd pictures of students engaged in their favorite hobbies (your imagination should provide some interesting examples of this).

Aside from that, the “free-speech” basis of the ACLU lawsuit is pure nonsense. The school may have used an indefensible (that’s my polite way of saying ‘stupid’) reason for rejecting the photo but they are , in no way, interfering with or discouraging Patrick’s hobby — they just aren’t helping him advertise it.

This whole legal battle started in December of 2006 and, right now, a federal judge is waiting on a recommendation from the Rhode Island Education Commissioner. If Patrick and his supporters win this lawsuit (which I doubt will happen) Portsmouth High School, and possibly schools across the country, may have some very amusing yearbook photos in years to come.

Links:

CNN: Teen fights for yearbook photo featuring armor, sword

From the BBC (shows the actual proposed year book photo): School tells youth to drop sword

St. Louis CofCC Blog: How We Know ‘Zero Tolerance’ Has Gone Too Far

Switters’ Blog: I Never Said Sayville Schools Had a Monopoly on Stupid Decisions

News and commentary by: Whymrhymer can also be found at the Blogger News Network and at The American Chronicle Family of Journals

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