At first glance, zero-tolerance policies in schools make perfect sense.

If a student brings a weapon to school, he or she is immediately suspended or expelled.

Case closed, at least as far as school administrators are concerned.

Caught with drugs or alcohol? Fighting? Out the door.

One can't be too cautious when it comes to student safety.

The problem is when school administrators apply zero-tolerance's harsh penalties to behavior that harms no one - or in the case of a South Eastern School District fifth-grader, amounts to a child simply being a child.

Ten-year-old Johnny Jones was suspended in October for threatening another student with a weapon, and a notation to that effect was placed in his permanent school record.

The problem is he had no weapon, and there was no threat -- he playfully pantomimed firing an arrow at a friend who had used a folder as an imaginary gun to "shoot" at Johnny.

Another classmate reported the boys to the teacher, who removed them from the classroom to reprimand them for the disruption.

There's nothing wrong with that. We suspect teacher-student exchanges like this take place on a daily basis across the country - and if memory serves us, they've been happening for quite a while.

"Settle down, class," the teacher says, and it's back to work.

But this incident didn't end there.


The teacher reported it to the principal, who informed Johnny's mother, Beverly Jones, both boys were being suspended for violating the school's zero-tolerance policy against weapons.

It's absurd.

These were two friends playing around.

If anything, maybe they were guilty of being annoying -- a trait not uncommon to 10-year-old boys.

The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties group that has taken up Johnny's cause, summed it up perfectly.

"You're punishing kids for imagination," said John Whitehead, founder and president of the institute.

The organization sent a letter to South Eastern Superintendent Rona Kaufmann, asking the district to rescind the suspension and remove the weapons reference from his permanent record.

While well-intended, the problem with zero-tolerance policies is that they too often are applied without any consideration to the circumstances of individual cases.

This is one reason the National Association of School Psychologists call them "complex, costly and generally ineffective."

"'Zero Tolerance' initially was defined as consistently enforced suspension and expulsion policies in response to weapons, drugs and violent acts in the school setting," according to the association's website.

However, it morphed over time and created other problems, the psychologists allege.

Among them: "Inconsistent application of zero tolerance policies, which often are not reserved exclusively for serious behaviors but applied indiscriminately to much lower levels of rule infraction."

It's time for school district to re-examine their use of these rules. And South Eastern should start with Johnny Jones' case.