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What’s wrong with Zero-Tolerance in public schools?                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Feb/08/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Behavior, Education, Society,

Before I start to rant, I should begin with some background.

Zero-Tolerance policies began sweeping the country in 1994 after Congress required states to adopt laws that guaranteed one-year expulsions for any student who brought a firearm to school. By tying federal funding to compliance with the Congressional mandate, all 50 states rapidly adopted similar laws.

Public policy towards children has moved towards treating them more and more like adults. This treatment is increasing mimicking the adult criminal justice system. The most recent version of this movement is the so-called "Zero-Tolerance" in schools, where theories of punishment that were once directed to adult criminal behavior are now being applied to elementary school children.

Zero-Tolerance means that a school will automatically and severely punish a student for a variety of infractions. While zero tolerance began as a response to students with guns, gun cases are the smallest category of school discipline cases. Zero-Tolerance now covers the spectrum of student misbehavior, from “threats" to giving aspirin to a classmate. Zero-Tolerance has become a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools do or “might” confront from students. This approach has the unfortunate consequence of effectively defining all errant student behavior as criminal.

I understand and as a parent vehemently respect the need to keep our schools safe from gun, knives, bombs, and other items meant to be used as real or threat based weapon. This also means that if someone wants to bring a hand gun or a replica of a hand gun to school, they need to be disciplined with suspension or expulsion.

The problem with a Zero-Tolerance is that it allows the implementers of the policy to stop thinking subjectively or at least with a modicum of common sense. While zero tolerance policies target the serious risk of students bringing guns to school, they also go after other weapons or anything - like a Swiss Army knife - that can be used as a weapon. Zero tolerance responds to student violence (covering a wide range of activities) or threats of violence. Zero tolerance is theoretically directed at students who misbehave intentionally, yet it is also applied to those who misbehave as a result of emotional problems, or other disabilities, or who merely forget what is in their pocket after legitimate non-school activities. It treats alike first graders and twelfth graders.

Zero tolerance results in expulsion or suspension irrespective of any legitimate explanation. In many instances it also results in having the student arrested.

Time for a few examples:
a.) A seventeen-year-old junior shot a paper clip with a rubber band at a classmate, missed, and broke the skin of a cafeteria worker. The student was expelled from school.
b.) A nine-year-old on the way to school found a manicure kit with a 1-inch knife. The student was suspended for one day.
c.) In Ponchatoula Louisiana, a 12-year-old who had been diagnosed with a hyperactive disorder warned the kids in the lunch line not to eat all the potatoes, or "I'm going to get you." The student, turned in by the lunch monitor, was suspended for two days. He was then referred to police by the principal, and the police charged the boy with making "terroristic threats." He was incarcerated for two weeks while awaiting trial.
d.) Two 10-year-old boys from Arlington, Virginia were suspended for three days for putting soapy water in a teacher's drink. At the teacher's urging, police charged the boys with a felony that carried a maximum sentence of 20 years. The children were formally processed through the juvenile justice system before the case was dismissed months later.
e.) In Denton County, Texas, a 13-year-old was asked to write a "scary" Halloween story for a class assignment. When the child wrote a story that talked about shooting up a school, he both received a passing grade by his teacher and was referred to the school principal's office. The school officials called the police, and the child spent six days in jail before the courts confirmed that no crime had been committed.
f.) In Palm Beach, Florida, a 14-year-old disabled student was referred to the principal's office for allegedly stealing $2 from another student. The principal referred the child to the police, where he was charged with strong-armed robbery, and held for six weeks in an adult jail for this, his first arrest.
g.) A 4th grader in Virginia at the suggestion of another child wiggled her rear end at a boy on the playground. The boy complained to a playground attendant who told the vice principal. It was determined that witnesses were needed so other children were brought into the office and interrogated over the event. Parents were not brought in during these interrogations.
h.) A 10-year-old Longmont, Colorado student was expelled because her mother had put a small knife in her lunchbox to cut an apple. When she realized the knife might violate the school's zero-tolerance policy, she (the 10-year-old) turned it in to a teacher, who told her she had done the right thing. The child was expelled.
i.) The incident that sparked this essay was a 4th grade New York student who was nearly suspended for bringing his favorite “Lego” toys to school which included a matching toy gun. The “Lego” gun is only 2-inches long.

This list could go on and on and I did not have to look very hard to build this short list including verification. Even when the children do not get expulsion or suspension they still experience significant trauma and public humiliation as a result of these incidents.

I am concerned that kids are going to lose respect teachers and administrators who cannot appreciate the difference between a plastic knife and a switch-blade. I don’t dispute the need to ensure our schools are safe places for our children, but a “one-size-fits-all” approach to mandatory punishment misses the target. Teachers are expected to possess age-appropriate skills for encouraging and motivating their classroom. These same age-appropriate skills should help them to recognize the difference between an innocent mistake and malicious intent. Unfortunately, Zero-Tolerance as implemented in many school systems fails to recognize that they are teaching children. It avoids important subjects such as fairness in favor of creating an injustice that serves to further confuse rather than teach these young minds.

It is unfortunate, but we live in a very litigious society forcing school administrators to adopt policies with very little if any room for interpretation. Many school systems unfortunately depend on inflexible zero-tolerance policies because officials fear being sued if they differentiate among students. The lawsuits invariably challenge the discipline process and whether the punishment is comparable with those given for similar offenses. To protect themselves, most school districts now have lengthy discipline codes that outline every offense and punishment, along with a detailed appeals process.

Zero-Tolerance in its present form is similar to fishing with a net. Rather than picking and choosing what to keep and what to throw back, all offenses are treated with the same level of severity. Hence, all the children’s transgressions, whether a bright green plastic water pistol, or their fathers hand gun often end out bundled into the same response.

It is easy to imagine school discipline policies that are grounded in common sense, and that are sensitive to student welfare and the educational needs of all children. Policies such as this are the kind that most parents would want if their own children were being disciplined. Unfortunately, most current policies eliminate the common sense aspect that comes with discretion and often leave scars at a high cost to the children and their families.

As any involved parent knows, punishment is an unfortunate but necessary component of learning. Additionally, effective punishment generally has three aspects: swiftness, certainty and consistent severity. It would appear that common sense has been set aside in favor of consistent severity. It would be nice to see more improvement with respect to certainty and swiftness. We know children’s minds are not as developed as an adult, that’s why they need adult supervision, so why are we treating their punishment like an adults punishment? Common sense would say that the only thing threatened by a 2-inch toy Lego gun is a toy Lego character.

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Michael Bloomberg
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