Sunday, June 12, 2011

One And Done: The Inherent Flaws Of Zero-Tolerance Policies In Schools

Everybody makes mistakes.

For some reason, multiple policy makers and school administrators never learned this simple factoid about human nature. The truth is we are all fallible as individuals. Nobody is perfect, as the saying goes. Unless we feel that a given deity walks among us, then I don't think anybody can say that there truly is a single person who is without fault. Even our heroes, those that we study and honor in books, on posters, with monuments, and with awards, all these folks have flaws as well, albeit these flaws often seem minor and insignificant compared to their entire life's body of work. If even our heroes make mistakes, surely we can't expect ANYBODY to be perfect, especially not our nation's children, right?

Yet for some unknown reason, many schools across our country have adopted zero-tolerance policies when it comes to the safety and well being of children. Like most issues in public education today, the intent is good, but the execution is sorely lacking. The idea behind zero-tolerance policies is that students know the rules and know the exact violation for breaking these rules. You bring a dangerous weapon to school and you are expelled. Sounds simply enough, right? Surely nobody would want his or her child to be in an environment where any kind of deadly weapon was in the vicinity. Clearly any child who brought said weapon to school obviously did so with bad intentions and this student should be expelled immediately. Open and shut case, right?

The problem is that many schools today have taken the basic idea of a zero-tolerance policy and have convoluted it so that the term "weapon" has come to mean anything that "could" be viewed as a threat to other students. The problem with this is that administrators have attempted to follow the ideals of a zero-tolerance policy to a T and have lost any and all common sense in regard to what is considered to be a "weapon." For those educators that follow the news, you most likely have heard a multitude of examples where students were expelled for bringing various items deemed "weapons" to school. Such items have been water guns, butter knifes, safety pins, staple removers, and metal combs just to name a few. In each case, school administrators determined that the above items were a threat to fellow students and because of that, the student who brought in the item was expelled for violating the school's zero-tolerance policy.

What zero-tolerance policies amount to are essentially a one and done mentality. Students and parents may appeal any expulsion or other disciplinary action that may ensue, but the fact is that school administrators can simply go to the part of the handbook which mentions the policy and that is that. There are no exceptions to zero-tolerance policies no matter how harmless the incident. Sure, these schools might receive some negative press, but as we've all come to see, Americans have short attention spans. Within a week, many people will not only forget the name of the school where the incident took place but also what exactly the so-called "weapon" of choice was as well. The school will continue to operate as normal and students and parents will be extra careful not to bring anything to school that might in any way violate the school's zero-tolerance policy.

The inherent problem with all of this is the lessons we are teaching our children. What good does an expulsion teach a fourth grader who brought a butter knife to school to spread mayonnaise on his sandwich? What lesson does our second grader learn when she brings a toy water gun to school to play with at recess? Odds are that neither of these children even realizes they have done anything wrong. And yet, here they are, being expelled from school, a permanent black mark on their record. Imagine explaining to a second grader that he cannot go to school with his friends anymore because of something he did. Try to envision how traumatizing this must be for someone at such a young age who never intended to cause any harm to suddenly be whisked away from a place never to return again.

As a society, Americans value redemption. That is why we now applaud such people as Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, and Ray Lewis among others. We love a good comeback story and as a society we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt as long as they admit their mistakes and then produce results. It is why we despise Bill Clinton's infidelity in 1998 but then pay him $10,000 a pop to speak in 2008. It is why we tend to overlook Britney Spears' less than stellar parenting but instead focus on her soaring album sales. We are a forgiving society as a whole for not only our celebrities but our friends and colleagues as well. Why then is it that we start our youngest members of society with a policy that offers them no chance for redemption? What kind of message does it send our children when we tell them they aren't allowed to make a mistake ever?

The idea of zero-tolerance policies recently hit home for me. Working at a charter school, we have students of all socio-economic status who enter our doors. Some of our students come from troubled backgrounds. Our first day of school in the fall, one of our students brought four lighters and enough weed to make Charlie Sheen happy to school. Under any zero-tolerance policy, drugs and drug paraphernalia would be grounds for an automatic expulsion. This particular student came to us from Texas, where he had a history of run-ins with the law. Simple open and shut case, right? This kid is obviously a bad apple and deserves to be expelled so he can take his marijuana dealings elsewhere.

Our school does not have a zero-tolerance policy. Instead we have a board of directors who carefully evaluate each incident on a case-by-case basis. In this case, it was determined that the student would get a five day suspension, but would not be expelled. He would be read the riot act, so to speak, and would be informed that if his sole reason for being at our school was to push drugs then he had better think long and hard about other options for him during his five day retreat. However, if he chose to remain with us, he would take it upon himself to dedicate himself to his studies and to end any ideas of distributing drugs within our school. Ultimately, the student returned and informed us that he would like to stay with us and vowed to try and change his ways.

This very afternoon, this same student emailed all of his teachers and thanked them for believing in him and for helping him turn his life around. This very same student won three separate awards at our school's first annual awards night. One of the awards was for the most improved history student, two other awards were given to him as recognition for him being a positive ambassador and role model during our school's year-end exhibition where student work is showcased to the community. He did not anticipate these awards and was also taken aback when all of his fellow students cheered for him as he came up to accept the awards. This student was not wearing the baggy pants a backwards cap and disheveled hair that he had during that first day of school. This night, he wore a full-suit and tie along with a brand-new buzz cut.

I personally am glad this student got a second chance. Aren't you?

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