When a Zero Tolerance Policy Makes Zero Sense

The story started like this: Marie Morrow, a junior in Cherokee Trails High School in Aurora, Colorado, is a cadet staff sergeant in the Young Marines and the commander of her local drill team. She made a mistake: she parked on the school’s parking lot with several wooden “parade rifles” in her car.


The problem? A Colorado state law that requires “zero tolerance” of any student in possession of any dangerous weapon — or anything that an uneducated person might take as a facsimile of a dangerous weapon. Someone who saw the parade rifles reported them to the school and the Colorado law, with its mandatory provisions, came into effect. The car was identified by its parking sticker, the school notified Cadet SSGT Morrow and her family, and she was suspended.

I thought the story was rather astonishing: I was in the ROTC and Civil Air Patrol drill teams in high school, and hell, we used real M-14s for drill, not parade mock-ups. And parade rifles might be mistaken for a real rifle by someone who had never seen either except from a distance, but they resemble a real rifle about as much as what a handy sixth grader would carve out of a two-by-six. She was suspended and came under threat of expulsion for possession of lumber.

But such is the process of the law. I talked to Tustin Amole, the communications director for the Cherry Creek School District, and she told me there were several points about the story. First of all, the law doesn’t allow any leeway or discretion. “Once the principal or school determines it is a ‘reasonable facsimile’ of a weapon, they have no choice.” The student must be suspended and there must be an expulsion hearing before the school board. The hearing is held before an “independent hearing officer” who must first of all determine if it really is a reasonable facsimile of a weapon; the hearing officer could find it didn’t meet the burden of mandating expulsion. Otherwise, they were required by law to expel the student, but that expulsion could be for anything from the time already served under suspension, to the end of the year. The hearing was set for February 20.


In the meantime, the story got out: Mike Rosen of the Rocky Mountain News and KOA radio talked about it on his morning talk show. It was covered on the local TV news and before long it was getting a lot of attention. It was even a story on Fox News’ “Grapevine” and members of the Colorado Senate were taking an interest.

I spoke to one of them, Colorado State Senator Kevin Lundberg, about the issue.  Lundberg agreed that this was a place where the law needed to be changed and that it was his intention to introduce a bill early this week to resolve the question. “We’re not trying to take the teeth out of this law, but to simply give it some common sense.”

Then things started to happen. Morrow’s hearing on February 20 was rescheduled to Thursday, February 12, at 8 a.m. By Friday, she was notified that she would be “expelled” for time served — back in classes on Wednesday, two days before her original hearing was even scheduled.

All’s well that ends well, then, right? For Marie Morrow, apparently so: she’ll be back in school and she’s been assured that this won’t prevent her from accepting an appointment to the Merchant Marine Academy, for which she already has the necessary recommendations. All it cost was, well, days off from school, legal fees, and, I’m sure, a couple of rough days and sleepless nights.

Of course, without the press and public attention, it could have turned out rather differently.


And imagine: without the zero tolerance law, we’d be putting our school administrations in the position of needing to actually think: “Is this a real threat?” Or “this is a good kid and a prop gun; there’s no reason to get excited about it.”

Oh, and one more thing: under the current law, if Marie Morrow were a member of the school’s Junior ROTC, it would have been different: they can carry prop rifles. See, if it’s a school group, they’re no longer frightening facsimiles of deadly weapons.


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