Help Needed! Zero Tolerance Gets Third Grader & His Cool Knife Expelled

Hi Readers! Here we go again – officials overreacting as if this makes them smart and proactive (rather than…overreacting). L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids: My daughter’s third grade friend brought his pocket knife to school on accident.  It was just in his pants’ pocket from the weekend.  An hour after school was dismissed, he and his friends were still playing on school grounds and he showed his knife to them.
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One of them was a girl and because the blade was pointing her direction, she decided he was “brandishing it” and went to tell her mom, who told the office, who told the district, who told the cops, one of whom said if he saw him with a knife again, he could shoot him.  (That’s right — preserve and protect — bully the eight-year-old.)
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He’s being expelled.  I know you post stories like these, but I was wondering if you had any suggestions of where my friend could go for support.  She’s trying to find a lawyer and figure out what her options are.
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I’d like to take this to the media since it’s been pretty effective in getting other districts to relent on their Zero Tolerance policies.  Anyway, do you have any suggestions of where to start? [LENORE: Yes! Here!]
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The incident was at Cumberland Elementary School in Sunnyvale, CA.  The Sunnyvale School District (between San Jose and San Francisco) is in charge of punishment.  To his credit, our school principal tried to just have him suspended, but once the district got wind of it, under California’s Zero Tolerance policy, they are required to issue a mandatory recommendation of expulsion and contact law enforcement — enter the threatening policeman.
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The boy is terrified.  He’s never been a troublemaker. He has a brother in kindergarten who is baffled.  – A California Mom.
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Lenore here: The writer has set up an email account for any lawyers or press to contact her about the incident:  bringbackdominick@gmail.com

This is NOT the knife the boy showed his friends.

Australian Police Chide Parents Who Let their Children Walk Outside

Hi Readers! Down in Australia I’m sort of happy to say a tempest is brewing over whether it is up to parents or police to decide when a child is “old enough” to walk around outside. According to this story  on the home page of the Sydney Morning Herald:

Officers told a Hornsby mother it was ”inappropriate” for her 10-year-old daughter to catch a bus unaccompanied, and warned a Manly father whose seven-year-old son walked alone to a local shop that while they would not alert DOCS [Dept. of Community Services], they would file a report.

Really? File a report to say a child was suspiciously…fine? Tell another parent that her  child is doing something “inappropriate” by…being competent?

Are these officers doing anyone an ounce of good? Don’t they realize that if they have nothing to do but warn parents about their perfectly poised offspring,  there probably isn’t a whole lot of crime going on for anyone to worry about?

And of course the bigger issue is, as always: Who decides what is “safe enough” when it comes to our kids? Free-Range Kids would rather not leave it up to   power-drunk, horror-hallucinating, infantilizing  busybodies with badges. – L.

There’s Hope for Mayberry Yet!

Hi Folks! Talk about a beacon of hope.  A Hollywood ending! Success! Get this:

As you may recall, a few years back, a mom from small-town Mississippi wrote to this blog in a quandry. After teaching her 10-year-old son the route to soccer, she’d let him walk there — less than a mile — by himself. On that first time out, a cop picked him up, scolded it wasn’t safe, and tracked down the mom. He told her  he’d received “hundreds” of calls to 911 about the boy and that he could book her for “child endangerment.”

That mom was Lori LeVar Pierce, and that day marked a turning point. Instead of cowering in fear, she called the chief of police and asked if the town was really so dangerous a kid couldn’t walk to soccer. The chief said it was very safe and apologized for the cop’s actions. But mere facts did not calm the local paper. As it wrote in an editorial:

Once upon a time, decades ago, mothers were able to let their elementary-aged children roam free and alone.

While many, including us, look upon this halcyon time with fondness and a longing for its return, the fact remains that things are different now.  The days of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and “Leave it to Beaver” are gone.

Yeah, in large part because fearmongering media bashed them over the head.

But some people have decided not to listen to doomsday blathering anymore. Lori, for instance, became twice as determined to have her kids play outside after the  cop incident, and thus saw for herself  what her town really lacked. Sidewalks! She became an activist and  now there are sidewalks all around town, thanks to her.

But that’s not all. As of last week, even the local PAPER is changing! Check out this Jan. 25 editorial:

…we, as a community, need to use more discretion when calling 911. It seems we’ve all gotten paranoid.

If there are teenagers you don’t know walking down the street, they might just be kids taking a stroll. And odds are, if you spend much time outside or looking out of the window, you’re going to see an unfamiliar car.

Pay attention. Look out for yourself and your neighbors. But don’t always rush to call the law.

We should feel safe in our own neighborhoods, and the police play a major role in that. But they shouldn’t have to console us every time we have unsubstantiated fears. It wastes their time and our money.

Don’t give in to unsubstantiated fears? Expect to see children strolling down the street? Get to know your neighbors? Darned if Columbus, Mississippi isn’t going…Free-Range!

If a town that told its citizens “This isn’t Mayberry” back in 2009 is telling them that kids can and should be walking down the street in 2012, I gotta say: Columbus, you rock! It takes courage to reject fear.  So hi from your new friend in New York City, and hi also to Lori, who got the ball rolling…and the kids outside. — Lenore

Let's hear it for a little street life!

Paper Airplane? Late for School? Shouting Too Loud? You’re Under Arrest!

Hi Readers — Here’s an incredible report on how the “School to prison pipeline” plays out in Texas, as published in The Guardian:

In 2010, the police gave close to 300,000 “Class C misdemeanour” tickets to children as young as six in Texas for offences in and out of school, which result in fines, community service and even prison time. What was once handled with a telling-off by the teacher or a call to parents can now result in arrest and a record that may cost a young person a place in college or a job years later.

The other appalling fact is that parents who don’t or can’t pay the fine, which can be $500, sometimes ignore it. Which means that when the kid turns 17,he or she can be arrested and go to jail — adult prison — for non-payment.

The draconian nature of this situation has not escaped notice. Reports The Guardian:

 Texas state legislature last year changed the law to stop the issuing of tickets to 10- and 11-year-olds over classroom behaviour. (In the state, the age of criminal responsibility is 10.) But a broader bill to end the practice entirely – championed by a state senator, John Whitmire, who called the system “ridiculous” – failed to pass and cannot be considered again for another two years.

Two more years of criminalizing everything from shenanigans to defiance? All in the name of “safety”? What about keeping kids safe from an unwarranted,  lifelong criminal record?

This is a Free-Range issue because, once again, we see what happens when we lose perspective on crime. Usually I write about how we keep our kids inside because we wildly over-estimate the chance of kidnapping. Now we see what happens when schools, politicians and police wildly over-estimate the chance of “another Columbine.” Either way, childhood is compromised.  Either way, out kids pay the price for our paranoia.  — Lenore

Criminally Confident in Our Kids

Hi Readers — Here’s my syndicated column from last week. Sorry it took me to long to get to the Tennessee bike rider story. Got overwhelmed by other stuff. Here goes! – L

CALLING ALL COPS…OFF

So, a mom in Tennessee, Teresa Tryon, has been told by the police that she was wrong to allow her 10-year-old daughter to bike to and from school. Do it again before the police discuss this with Child Protective Services, she was warned, and she could face charges of child neglect.

Though Tryon believed her child was safe, the police officer didn’t. And that was enough to put the mom on thin legal ice.

The bike ride is less than 10 minutes each way. The mom herself said she passed a total of eight cars on her two journeys on that same route that same day. Moreover, she had her daughter take a bike safety class before any of this.

Does it get any safer than that? Perhaps the girl should just never get on a bike at all. That would probably satisfy the cop. But what about the kid, who wants a childhood? And the mom, who wants an active, independent little girl? And the town, which could be buzzing with kids playing outside or could be just a barren expanse of empty lawns?

The cooped-up kids and lifeless lawns are collateral damage in the war against terror — the terror we are supposed to feel whenever we think of children doing anything on their own. If you don’t share that terror, you risk trouble with the law.

I know because it happened to me, too. After I let my son ride the subway solo at age 9 a few years back, I also let him ride the commuter train out to the burbs when he turned 10. He went back and forth to his friend’s house many times, but then, one time, one of the conductors noticed him and went ballistic. “You should NOT be riding alone!” he said. Izzy offered to let the man talk to me on the phone, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he radioed ahead to the cops, who were waiting when my son got off the train.

Also waiting, by the way, was the family of the kid my son was going to see.  They always pick him up.

You’d think that would be proof enough that this was a situation both families felt comfortable with, but instead, the train was held for several minutes while the police questioned the friend’s family and then called me. Finally, the cop conceded this was probably OK, so the conductor got back on the train, and that was that.

Until about a month later, when it all happened again.

The same cop called me. And when I said that Izzy was now carrying a printout from the train’s own website that said kids as young as eight can ride alone,  and that furthermore that I personally felt my son was safe — at rush hour, surrounded by hundreds of commuters — the officer said, “But what if someone tries to abduct him?”

I said that in that very unlikely scenario, I thought the other people would help him.

Countered the cop: “What if TWO guys try to abduct him?”

This is what I call “Worst-First” thinking — jumping to the very WORST scenario FIRST and acting as if it were likely to happen. Two guys waiting at a commuter train platform just in case a 10-year-old might happen to be riding by himself that day and they could somehow grab each arm with no one noticing? (And as my son asked later,  “Isn’t the policeman there to KEEP me safe?”)

Of course, there are police officers who understand that kids are not in constant danger and allow them to go about the business of learning to navigate the world. But when a cop comes knocking on your door or calling you from the train platform, you realize that until we abolish “Worst-First” thinking, kids can’t be kids — and the police get to parent.

Wednesday, Prince Spaghetti Day, 2011 Version

Hi Readers! I love this idea that one of you sent regarding the Prince Spaghetti commercial. Enjoy it and have a great weekend — I’m off to Toronto to film another episode of my show. Remember: We still need some overprotective families in Toronto and/or New York City. So far, all the families that have participated really enjoyed it. (Me too!) — L.

Dear Free Range Kids: Yes, I remember that commercial.  They should update it and get some real publicity! (Hey, Lenore, Prince Spaghetti could be a sponsor of your TV show — with this new commercial)

The kid runs through the streets. Concerned helicopter parents watch as he passes. Several whip-out cellphones and call CPS.

Bystanders watching the boy talk of how dangerous it is to be unattended as a child in a dangerous city. (A siren sounds in the distance.)  The camera zooms in on a woman peering from a second story window, a look of grave concern etched on her face. She turns to somebody in the room and suggests calling the police. A voice says, “Don’t worry, he’s probably running home because it’s Prince Spaghetti Day.”

Scene change. Two policemen arrive with Anthony at his mother’s door. They read Mom the Riot Act and Anthony pipes up that it’s Prince Spaghetti Day, but the police say that’s no excuse to risk his life at HIS AGE because you never know when a pervert or murderer will kidnap and murder you.  The policeman finally leave. One says, “Maybe it was worth the risk since it’s Prince Spaghetti Day.” His partner jabs him in the ribs and says, “You can’t be serious!!”

The door closes. Anthony rolls his eyes at his mom. His mom nods and says it’s time for dinner. Then statistics roll across the screen telling how safe it actually is today for children to play outside …and that the likelihood of a child being killed in a car crash is far higher than being kidnapped. — Steve

Notice It Wasn’t, “Wednesday Is Negligent Parents Day”

Hi Readers! This is from the blog, “Free-Range Kids in Film,” by Michael Alves. How I remember this commercial! — L. 

“Anthony” Prince Pasta commercial. Not sure when this was filmed, but it seems like it is the late 60s or early 70s. It shows a school-age boy, Anthony, running home through the streets of the North End of Boston to get his dinner. He is alone. The streets are crowded, but he gets home safely. According to the article below, this spot ran for 13 years. I bet no one felt it was strange that a boy would be out by himself back then. — Michael Alves

And I’ll bet no one called the police if he didn’t run home. — L.