Monday, April 16, 2007

Teaching the Wrong Stuff

My friend’s son, one of the smallest male eighth graders in his school, earned a three-day suspension from school administrators. His crime? He had the audacity to be stuffed into a garbage can by a large ninth grader. All parties agreed that there was no provocation for this. He simply happened to be an easy target when the bully came by.

Welcome to the world of zero tolerance. With parents becoming increasingly belligerent about their overindulged children being punished for misbehavior, many school administrators have resorted to mandatory punishment for any violation of the code of conduct. This usually includes anything that could be construed to be bullying, hazing, or violence. It includes bringing a weapon to school or engaging in hate speech (whatever that might be construed to be).

Many schools’ implementation of zero tolerance includes provisions for any party to a code violation to be punished. When my friend’s son violated his school’s code of conduct by being so impertinent as to be stuffed into a garbage can by a bully, the school’s zero tolerance policy made his suspension mandatory — no questions asked. As this was the second such event during the year, he was in danger of being suspended for the remainder of the school year should he engage in such deplorable behavior a third time.

Last month we were surprised to learn that my son, who is regularly on the high honor roll, is a member of the National Academic League team, is on the chess club, represents the school at math competitions, etc. had received a three-day suspension for fighting. It seems that some verbal barbs were exchanged with a known bully during a gym class soccer game. At one point, however, the bully lunged and tackled my son (a football tackle, not a soccer tackle), jumped on top of him, and began punching him. My son defended himself, gouging the boy’s face. The entire scuffle lasted 15 seconds. All parties agreed that the bully was the aggressor. My son was suspended for being attacked. He would have been suspended even if he hadn’t attempted to defend himself.

Examples abound of children being treated harshly without the benefit of common sense due to inflexible school policies. A five-year-old boy was suspended for violating the school district’s sexual abuse policy. His crime? He placed his head against his female teacher’s breast when giving her a hug. A child was suspended for pointing his finger at a classmate during a game at recess and saying, “Bang, bang. You’re dead.” After camping with his Boy Scout troop over a weekend, a boy was suspended for forgetting to remove his pocketknife from his coat pocket before going to school on Monday. His problem was that he was honest about it and informed school personnel as soon as he discovered it. regularly documents outlandish outcomes of inflexible zero tolerance school policies, but it also reports news related to zero tolerance policies.

School districts often back down when they are confronted with a violation of common sense, but many times they stand by their policies. USA Today reported last year that zero tolerance “discipline policies that are enforced widely in U.S. schools are backfiring.” The American Psychological Association has said that zero tolerance policies actually promote misbehavior and cause anxiety. I mean, if you’re going to get into trouble for being attacked, you might as well make it worth your while and really beat the tar out of the attacker (promoting bad behavior). As for causing anxiety, just imagine how my friend’s son feels as he walks around school wondering if he will get kicked out today for becoming a bully’s victim.

While our kids are at school, the school acts in loco parentis, which is Latin for “In place of a parent.” As a parent, I must admit that there are times when I impose penalties on all parties to a problem. If I can’t really tell who is at fault when two children are quarrelling or both seem to be escalating the situation, I may send both to time out. If they’re arguing about a toy, I may put the toy on time out. But that is not my default behavior. I try to implement some level of justice.

Inflexible school policies that lack common sense — or policies that are implemented without flexibility or without common sense — do not teach justice. No decent parent would make this kind of policy their default behavior for managing child challenges. Schools should not be able to simply abdicate their responsibility to act like a decent parent when they have accepted the responsibility to act in place of the parent. Sometimes administering justice is hard work. But that’s part of the business of taking care of groups of kids for 7-8 hours a day.

There are rumblings of changes in inflexible policies throughout the edusphere. But I have to wonder how many more kids we’re going to damage before we get back to doing what’s best for the kids rather than what’s best for school employees. Perhaps this is the kind of issue school choice is intended to address. I don’t have much experience with private schools, so I cannot speak to whether their policies are any better. But it would seem that competition would beget policies more to the liking of parents, whatever their desires might be.

My son sat out his three-day suspension. Being an academician, he didn’t find it a reward like many other kids probably do. He chomped at the bit to get back to school. We’ll find out what it cost him in grades when midterms come out next week. But let me state for the record that my experience with zero tolerance left a sour taste in my mouth.


Frank Staheli said...

Of all the excellent points made in this article, perhaps the best one is that ZT only punishes those who really care (and are therefore very unlikely to deserve blame).

I would go nuts if I worked in such an environment where I had to apply such silly rules.

Democracy Lover said...

What happened to Zero Tolerance for bullying? Perhaps the Blame the Victim mentality has taken over the school administrators, or they belong to the "Suspend them all and let God sort it out" school of discipline.

IMHO, zero tolerance policies are ridiculous and represent nothing more than evasions of responsibility by school administrators. They are in the same category with "3 strikes and you're out" laws and laws that restrict judges in sentencing - they are designed to make it seem we are tough and doing something, but what we're doing is unjust and counter-productive.

Reach Upward said...

Apparently zero tolerance for bullying means zero tolerance for being either the bully or the bully's victim. I mean, if the victim weren't there, the bullying wouldn't have occurred, right? So, let's punish the victim as well. It's simply an abdication of responsibility.