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Arrested for Doodling on a Desk? "Zero Tolerance" at Schools Is Going Way Too Far

How much longer can we tolerate abuses of power by teachers and school officials in the name of 'zero tolerance' policies?

This week, the FBI announced it was launching an investigation into a surveillance scandal out of Lower Merion County, Pennsylvania, where it was recently discovered that school officials had used Web cams on school-issued laptops to spy on a student, 15-year-old Blake Robbins.

Robbins was falsely accused of possessing illicit drugs after the vice principal at his high school, Lindy Matskhis, called him into a meeting where she revealed that she had seen images of him at home through his laptop. According to Robbins' attorney, Mark Haltzman, "She called him into the office and told him, basically, 'I've been watching what was on the Web cam and saw what was in your hands. I've been reading what you've been typing, and I'm afraid you are involved in drugs and trying to sell pills.'"

Matskhis, it turned out, was grievously mistaken. What looked like pills turned out to be Mike and Ike candies.

Robbins' parents sued. Now the case has prompted a debate about student privacy and the threat of technological overreach.

The Robbins case may seem to be uniquely bad in some ways. But it comes at a time when there's no shortage of disturbing stories in the news about the intrusive and repressive measures taken by public schools against students, in districts across the country. Last year the Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of Savana Redding (now an adult, who, at the age of 13, was strip-searched by school staff in search of prescription ibuprofen); yet from violations of privacy to wrongful arrests by school "peace" officers, the story seems to be expanding.

On February 1, in Forest Hills, Queens, 12-year-old Alexa Gonzalez was arrested after she was caught doodling on her desk. Profanity? Threats against her teacher? No, the middle school student had written, with an erasable marker, "I love my friends Abby and Faith," along with "Lex was here. 2/1/10"  and a smiley face, according to the New York Daily News.

This, apparently, was a criminal act in the eyes of her teacher. She called school security -- New York police officers -- who promptly cuffed her and hauled her across the street, to the local precinct,

"I started crying, like, a lot," Alexa told the Daily News. "I made two little doodles. It could be easily erased. To put handcuffs on me is unnecessary."

Nevertheless, in addition to being handcuffed and held at the police station, Alexa was also suspended and "assigned eight hours of community service, a book report and an essay on what she learned from the experience."

Alexa's suspension was eventually lifted. But she still missed three days in school, days she spent "throwing up," according to her mother, Moraima Tamacho.

Tamacho and her daughter have an attorney, who says they will sue the NYPD for violating Alexa's constitutional rights.

Punished for Refusing to Pledge Alliegance

Meanwhile, mere days before Alexa's arrest, in Montgomery Country, Maryland, a 13-year-old student at Roberto Clemente Middle School was escorted out of school by police after she refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance two days in a row. According to the ACLU, which is representing the student (she remains anonymous), the trouble started on January 27, when the seventh grader "chose neither to stand nor to speak during the school s daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance."

"Instead, she sat quietly while students recited the Pledge."

Her teacher was not okay with this. He ordered her to stand up; when she refused, he threatened her with detention and sent her to the school counselor's office, where she spent the rest of the period.

The next day, the same conflict broke out. This time, the teacher called in a pair of "school resource officers" -- in-school Maryland police -- to take care of the situation.

The officers didn't arrest the student, escorting her to the counselor's office rather than a police station. Nonetheless, like Alexa Gonzalez, the experience of being marched out of class in front of her classmates proved harrowing.

"As these events occurred in front of the entire class, they caused her great embarrassment and humiliation," her ACLU lawyer wrote in a letter to the school on February 4. "Indeed, since these events, [the student] has been too humiliated to return to school, and has been advised by a psychologist that due to the distress she is experiencing, she should not return for an extended period."

While initially, the teacher and assistant principal refused to acknowledge the violation of the student's rights -- Assistant Principal James Richard countered that the student owed her teacher an apology for her "defiance" -- this week the Washington Post reported that the teacher will have to apologize to the student.

School spokesperson Dana Tofig told the Post that the teacher had violated school policy, which is based on Maryland law.

"The policy is very, very clearly stated," Tofig said. "Our teachers are expected to know the students' rights and responsibilities....A mistake has been made, and it will be rectified."

Zero Tolerance?

Like ongoing reports of students being tasered by police officers on school grounds, it is not uncommon to hear school administrators in the news expressing some regret at a disciplinary action gone too far. These episodes are treated as isolated incidents in an otherwise sound system. But a recent CNN report suggests that stories like these indicate a trend, with critics of "zero-tolerance" policies raising concerns that attempts to keep students disciplined and safe might be doing more harm than good.

"Critics say schools and police have gone too far, overreacting and using well-intended rules for incidents involving nonviolent offenses such as drawing on desks, writing on other school property or talking back to teachers," CNN reported.

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