A court settlement overturning the 2008 suspension of a middle school honors student for inadvertently bringing an over-the-counter allergy pill to school should mark an important moment for area school districts:
The moment we all stop defending zero tolerance policies.
When school officials discovered the expired pill in the Pinelands Regional Middle School eighth-grader's backpack, he was suspended for five days and was also expelled from the school honor society and banned from participating in music activities.
It was clear at the time that this was an overreaction. But school administrators refused to back down and decided instead to waste their time and the public's money defending a mistake.
Last month, Pineland's Regional school officials agreed to revamp their drug policy as part of a settlement with the student, now a high school senior, in a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
School administrators are paid to make decisions and show good judgment.
Instead, zero tolerance drug and weapon policies become something for administrators to hide behind. "I was following the policy" is the ultimate defense in any bureaucracy. But in the real world, it just doesn't wash.
The ACLU says New Jersey law prohibits school officials from imposing automatic discipline without taking into account a student's age, his discipline history or the severity of the offense, and that zero-tolerance policies violate students' rights to due process.
But some school districts still don't get it.
Throughout the country, we have the predictable, silly results that stem from silly policies.
In December, a 10-year-old in Tennessee was punished because he chewed a slice of pizza into the shape of a pistol and aimed it at his fellow students.
In 2009, a first-grader in Delaware was nearly sent to an alternative school because he brought a combination fork, spoon and knife camping tool to school.
And in 2004, two Pinelands Regional High School students were suspended for wearing T-shirts that said "End the Hate."
In each case, officials brandished policies instead of common sense. And that can be a costly mistake.
As part of the allergy pill settlement, in addition to its own staff time and legal costs, Pinelands Regional will pay $20,000 in legal fees to ACLU of New Jersey foundation.
Sadly, even now, Pinelands Superintendent Robert Blake seems willing to defend the poor decisions made by his district. In a statement, he said the district decided to settle the case based on the ongoing costs, adding "over-the-counter medicines can be abused as well."
It would be much more appropriate to apologize for this silly policy and the pain it put a middle school student and his family through, and to assure other families that nothing like this will ever happen again.