A teacher being issued a summons for making a joke about having his students shot? It sound outrageous. It sounds absurd.

But this is apparently what happened in Freeport last month. It is also the kind of consequence students face every day in schools that have adopted zero-tolerance policies about violence.

Verbal threats that used to be ignored, or, at worst, caused a grudging forced apology are now legal matters for students and their families.

Statements meant as “jokes” can be taken the wrong way and now are enough to force schools into lockdown evacuation and lead to the expulsion of the perpetrator.

These are not times when jokes are taken lightly, and Freeport Middle School teacher Dave Mason, an educator with three decades of experience, should know that better than most people.

Adults in schools are expected to treat every hint of violence as the real thing when they hear it from their students.

So if Mason really said to his students (as one parent reports) that he “was so frustrated he wanted to take them to the roof and shoot them,” he should have known that somebody might take it the wrong way.

Under zero-tolerance polices, there is no such thing as an innocent error. A threat is a threat, and it is treated seriously whether it was intended as a joke or not.

School violence is a serious problem, as this week’s tragic school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, attests.

Schools have a primary responsibility to keep students safe. Violence and threats of violence prevent students from learning, and bullying and teasing leave psychological scars that are as bad as physical ones.

If this incident proves to be nothing more than a poorly chosen remark taken out of context, however, maybe it will lead school officials to think about the students who have been caught by the same kind of arbitrary judgments and question whether their reactions really make their schools more safe.

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