Last week's editorial focused on the failure of the present U.S. drug policy in reducing the incidence of drug use by kids. This week's news, however, highlights the ways in which young people are victimized by the drug war's excesses. In West Virginia, a boy is suspended from junior high school for three days for giving a cough drop to a classmate. And in Queens, New York, a 17 year-old student is shot and wounded by a federal agent on a special drug detail who mistook a candy bar wrapper in the teen's hand for a gun.
The student in West Virginia is just the latest casualty of a "zero tolerance" school policy taken to its logical extreme. Earlier this year, a high school sophomore was suspended for 30 days for giving a Midol tablet to a friend with cramps. In another incident, a straight A high school student was suspended for four months for possessing a novelty pen filled with sterile hemp seeds (http://www.dpf.org/dpletter/30/). And, as The Week Online reported recently, an elementary school student was suspended for giving a pill-shaped Certs mint to a classmate with the advice that it would make him "jump higher."
In the present case involving the cough drop, there is certainly nothing wrong with a policy (like the one in force in the West Virginia junior high school in question) forbidding the possession of over the counter medications without parental permission; it is the punishment which raises questions. Assuming that the student intended no harm in passing on the cough drop, what principle, exactly, is served by sending the boy home -- and depriving him of three days of school -- in response to this "crime"? Does anyone really believe that this child will see his penance as just? Or will the punishment serve only as a lesson on the irrationality of adults, especially as concerns "substances"?
The boy's mother responded that the punishment was "asinine." Her reaction seems to confirm that the school's action will not be reinforced at home, thus further lessening any intended impact. Is it possible that there was another, less severe sanction which could have conveyed the message intended by the school? Or are we so anxious to punish that we have lost sight of the fact that the goal of punishment should be to reinforce an understanding and respect for civilized behavior? Given the reasonable assumption that the student was not intending to "drug" or otherwise harm his classmate, could a lecture on the potential dangers of over the counter medications, attended by both child and parent, have done the trick? Is it possible that such a course would have seemed more reasonable to the boy's mother, thereby insuring a consistent message and a lesson learned? Or was this even a consideration?
The incident in Queens, New York, raises far more troubling questions. A seventeen year-old student, captain of his high school soccer team, walking down the street with a candy bar in his hand, was confronted by an undercover federal agent on assignment with a "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force." The officer leaped out of an unmarked car, identified himself as an agent, demanded that the teen "drop the gun" (which he wasn't holding) and, according to the injured student, nearly simultaneously shot the young man in the leg.
It is not surprising that this federal officer was on such special duty in Laurelton, Queens. Laurelton is a primarily African-American neighborhood, which means, under the rules of engagement of this war, that most of the constitution does not apply there. Any and all citizens of Laurelton are "suspects," and as such, it is they who feed our insatiable hunger for new incarcerates. It is therefore also not surprising that this officer, who is white, mistook the student for a potential troublemaker. The student, after all, fit the "profile" which has been so assiduously developed in our nation's proud war on drugs... he is young and black, and, in the world of that federal drug warrior, he was as likely carrying a gun as a candy bar.
Time after time, it seems, we hear from our government about kids and drugs: they are taking them, they are dealing them, they are under assault by dark forces trying to lure them into the underworld of rebellion and abuse. But our government, by its policies, by its rhetoric, by its example, has made enemies of our children. They have put them at risk. At risk of being unjustly and severely punished, at risk of being shot by agents of the State, and, perhaps most insidiously of all, at risk of being pushed away into an assumed class of undesirables from whence all of our influence, and all of our good intentions, will be lost to the scorn and the disgust in which our children will hold us. And rightly so. Because this war, predicated upon the protection of our children, is quickly making them the victims of our own worst impulses.
Adam J. Smith