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Lenore Skenazy
Lenore Skenazy
5 Mar 2015
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When Is It OK To Take a Knife to School?


And now for the latest from the front lines of the absurdity known as zero-tolerance laws. This story concerns a North Carolina high-school senior suspended for a paring knife found in her lunchbox, which, for the record, was her dad's lunchbox. She had an identical lunchbox and brought his to school by mistake. (Dad pares his apples at lunch; his daughter doesn't.)

The school is insisting it found the knife when it was searching purses, not lunchboxes. Whatever. The point is: The girl was punished for carrying something that she had no intention of using as a weapon. It's like suspending a kid for bringing a baseball bat to school. After all, he COULD use it to club his teacher.

Sometimes I worry that by calling attention to these bureaucratic fails — stories of kids suspended for the most innocent of "crimes" — I'm giving as warped a picture of our culture as the nightly news does (albeit with a different slant). But the reason for publicizing these incidents is not to say they are epidemic, but to point out why they are happening at all. They are happening because of the inability of those in power to do any kind of sensible risk assessment. (Yes, TSA, that means you, too.)

That IS an issue worth talking about, because sensitivity to ACTUAL danger — versus the tripwire, brain-frozen fear of any POSSIBLE danger — is one of the things I'd like to see change in 2011. When we as a society say "I don't care about the fact that it's safe in 999,999,999 cases; it's that billionth case that matters!" nothing seems safe enough. Not an old lady carrying 4 ounces of face cream onto a plane, not a food company selling hot dogs without a big CHOKING HAZARD label on the package, and not a kid who accidentally (or even intentionally!) brings her dad's fruit-paring knife to school.

Unless you're an apple, this incident just does not pose a threat. Why did the school treat it as if it did?

Because we are getting really good at substituting fear for reality. You'll recall that a few weeks back, our government outlawed the manufacture, sale and resale of drop-side cribs because every year, about three children die in them. That's three children out of the 4 million born every year. But the fear that any item or activity might have any negative consequences whatsoever is enough to make us ignore any upside — even a huge one — and outlaw it.

That's why some towns have banned sledding; someone COULD get hurt, so let's just forbid it entirely. Some schools have banned tag — same reason. Some parks have gotten rid of seesaws. Pools have dismantled their diving boards. In England, the Scouts are encouraged to play nighttime games with the lights on now, even though the whole POINT was to have a little adventure in the dark. All these precautions are based on the fear of what might happen, in the worst-case scenario, once in a long while.

So now we have this high-school senior forbidden from stepping foot on campus because, in the words of the superintendent as quoted by TV station WRAL, "bottom line is we want to ensure every child feels safe on our campus."

If these "children" (actually, high-school students) don't feel safe because one girl has a paring knife, it's a good bet they never will feel safe. Because in that situation, kids are ENTIRELY safe, and it is a BIG LIE to say they aren't.

And it is a lie with consequences.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)" and "Who's the Blonde That Married What's-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can't Remember Right Now." To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ( and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



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