We’ve all seen news stories that involve the arrest of students for carrying weapons. A 6-year-old boy was sent to an alternative school for troubled youth after taking a cub scout multitool to school (link). Two high school students were arrested for having knives in their car in the school parking lot (link). We’ve read the stories in the paper and wondered how kids could get in trouble for such incidents.
At the same time, nobody wants kids to have weapons in school. Clearly, the possession of weapons is dangerous and can cause serious incidents. Given these contradictory positions, what should we do?
It’s simple: Strictly ban weapons in schools. At the same time, define the word “weapon.”
It’s fortunate for us that these have both already been done. It’s obvious that weapons are banned in schools by the universal policies against weapons possession. Unfortunately, the term “weapon” isn’t very clear.
Here it is, according to most sources (though I use a Wikipedia quote because the Creative Commons license allows it):
A weapon, arm, or armament is any device used with intent to inflict damage or harm to living beings, structures, or systems.
In other words, a weapon is not a thing. Instead, a weapon is a thing intended to cause harm to other things.
Most of the things that have caused school punishments have been tools, which are objects designed to get something done. This is an important distinction. While all weapons are tools (they’re designed to do something), all tools are not weapons (in that a tape measure can’t be used to murder somebody).
This is an important distinction in this age of zero tolerance. Let’s go back to the examples I mentioned earlier:
- The six-year-old boy’s knife was actually a Cub Scout multitool that contained a knife, fork, and spoon for the purposes of eating on campouts. In other words, it was a tool for eating.
- The high school kids busted for knives in their cars had just been fishing and used their pocketknives to cut fishing line. In other words, they were recreational tools.
I figured I’d take a look at a list of worldwide knife-related deaths in schools over the past 20 years. What I found was interesting. Of the 34 incidents that warranted mention, only four of them were committed by students. Another four incidents were committed by teachers or staff, with the remaining 26 committed by adults who came into the school.
Not exactly an unstoppable wave of student violence.
However, no matter how we spin it, we come back to the issue of “how do we know the difference between a weapon and a tool in the hands of a student?” The answer: Context.
Let’s have a look at some possible examples, and the sorts of judgements we can make about them:
- A student with a Swiss Army Knife is very unlikely to use this tool to stab another student to death (note: In my research I found that only one folding knife has been used in a school assault in the past 20 years – in the entire world.) As a result, students with Swiss Army Knives should be left alone.
- A student with a machete is probably using it as a weapon. Common sense tells us that there aren’t many jungles to cut paths through in most high schools, which means that the most likely use for this tool is as a weapon.
- A student with a gun in a school can be assumed to be using this as a weapon for harming others. This isn’t because guns are inherently evil – it’s because there’s no legitimate purpose for anybody unrelated to law enforcement to have a gun in schools. Guns may not be evil, but it’s safe to assume that people who wave them around probably are.
Of course, there are gray areas here. What if a student went deer hunting and left a rifle in their car? What happens if a gang member brings a sharpened screwdriver to school? These circumstances don’t require rules to sort them out – they require common sense. If common sense isn’t enough to work things out, the legal system is nicely designed to work it out for us.
This common sense approach can be applied to zero tolerance policies in general. For example, drugs should be forbidden in schools, while medication should not. The kids above who got busted for having knives in their car were also in trouble for possessing drugs, namely Advil. I’ve also heard of kids getting busted for possession of cough drops and nasal spray. Anybody who seriously thinks these are worthy of the same treatment as heroin is seriously out to lunch.
I’ve mentioned common sense above, but this leads to a very reasonable question: Whose common sense should be used to judge permissible from impermissible items? That’s simple: Ours.
Teachers and administrators should be be the judges of what is permissible and what is not. We teachers are supposedly professionals whose job is to use our best judgement to assist our students in learning and growing as individuals. If a teacher can’t tell the difference between a penknife and a broadsword, perhaps they should find a less-challenging profession.
Realistically, I don’t expect these reforms to ever be enacted. To enable them would make politicians seem soft on crime and would force them to admit that teachers aren’t the cause of all society’s ills. However, wouldn’t it be nice if we were allowed to use common sense?