By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
The day after the tragic school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Governor James Gilmore ordered every school in Virginia to report to the police the names of students who may be a threat to school safety. Since then, school officials have overreacted in an unprecedented manner, suspending students on the spot for wearing black trench coats, having colored hair, or making casual but offensive remarks about athletes or teachers.
One student was suspended for a paper turned in to his journalism teacher two days before the shootings. That student wrote about how much he resented some athletes and others who picked on him, but he did not propose to take any retaliatory action whatsoever.
The ACLU believes that schools should be safe for everyone, but we object to the response from the Governor and many school officials. For individuals to react emotionally to this horrible incident is appropriate and expected, but public officials must react in well-reasoned and measured ways that seek both to address the problem effectively and that honor our constitutional rights. In Virginia, neither of these principles is being served.
First, the response infringes on a host of individual rights -- free expression, due process, and privacy, to name a few. Think of the contradictory lessons the schools teach young people when they say on one hand that everyone deserves the full protection of the Constitution while on the other hand they suspend students on the basis of an irrational fear of an imagined problem. The frightful picture of government as oppressive, prejudiced and arbitrary is made complete.
Second, the reaction is unresponsive to the problem. There is absolutely no relationship between attire and violence, and off the cuff remarks are completely unreliable predictors of future violence. If we suspended every student who says to a friend, "I'd like to shoot my math teacher," our public schools would be practically empty.
The problems are much deeper than attire and casual, if inappropriate, language, and such superficial solutions only divert us from dealing with the real causes
Before Littleton, Virginia schools were already overreacting. Under the policy of Zero Tolerance students have been punished severely for minor infractions of the rules, such as taking a single Advil to school. But Virginia has now moved from Zero Tolerance to Sub-Zero Tolerance. Zero Tolerance meant that no mercy would be shown for any rule-breaking of any kind. Sub-Zero Tolerance means that students can be punished even when the rules are not broken.
The scars from such irrational behavior by public officials are likely to run deep and last long, spawning in our young people a new cynicism towards government that makes the post-Watergate generation look naïve.