In the criminal law system, you're innocent until proven guilty.

If police claim you have illegal drugs, they must test the items in a certified laboratory before you can be found guilty.

In all criminal offenses, there must be just cause to make an arrest. Then you are entitled to a trial.

Prison sentences are not given out by a judge until you're proven guilty.

Children in school don't have such rights. They can be tarnished with a "record" for innocent acts.

Children learn in history classes that Americans have certain right and due process, then are shown they shouldn't believe what they're taught.

That's because most schools have "zero tolerance" policies in which students can be suspended or expelled for having in their possession anything that resembles a weapon.

Theoretically it sounds like a safe idea. In practicality, it's criminalizing good kids.

Consider:

Ÿ In Maryland, a 7-year-old boy was suspended from Park Elementary School in Brooklyn Park. The boy was eating a pastry during snack time and trying to shape it into a mountain. The teacher said it looked like a gun and took him to the principal's office. The boy's parents were called, and he was suspended for two days.

Ÿ In New Kensington, a 7-year-old boy was suspended after telling a teacher Tuesday that he accidentally brought a toy gun to school. The boy left his regular book bag at a friend's house, so she packed him another one, not realizing the toy was in it. The boy gave it to a teacher because he knew it was against the rules. and then was suspended.

Ÿ A student in Maine has been suspended for 10 days after he brought a bright yellow water gun to school, in yet another case of zero tolerance insanity. The superintendent commented that the toy "certainly looks innocent enough on one hand, but can be used in a disruptive way and lead, perhaps, to students bringing other water pistols that may not look so benign."

But it was the zero tolerance policy which got the boy suspended, not rowdiness.

Locally, suspensions have occurred at schools for bringing "replicas of weapons." Because of privacy laws, we have no idea what these "replicas" are. If they were guns, knives, or other weapons that reasonably resembled real ones, and not blue, clear plastic Fisher-Price toys, then the suspensions are understandable.

Sandwiches in the shape of guns? Yellow, plastic water pistols? A student accidentally bringing a gun to school and immediately turning it in to his teacher?

These shouldn't warrant suspensions.

Understandably, weapons have no place in schools. For real weapons, and even toys that resemble real weapons, there must be no tolerance.

But on the other hand, students must still be allowed to be children. Kids do play with toys that don't resemble real guns, including water pistols and Styrofoam dart guns.

These are not weapons.

Zero tolerance policies must be revised so that good students aren't punished and that stupid suspensions don't happen.

By RON GOWER

rgower@tnonline.com