Thursday, October 1, 2015

What Did You Learn In School Today?

The school “zero tolerance” discipline policy has gotten out of hand. I have been watching it the last few years and am constantly astounded by who gets suspended and for what. 

[Disclaimer: I know there are many teachers who give their very soul to their job and, in general, I am not talking about teachers so much as policy makers and administrators practicing excessive “zero tolerance” policies.]

The policy, though effective in reducing administrative entanglements and time investment, does nothing to contribute to the positive development of our children.  It does, however, encourage “failure to use a brain,” massive abuse of authority complex, and hiding bias behind policy - not to mention teaches our children to feel, and accept, injustice.

I doubt people even know how the policy began, and for what reason, much less how it has evolved.

I remember when it first started. I was in high school.

Sometimes kids fought at school and the administration would question them about who started it - who threw the first punch. The child that threw the first punch would be suspended.

The problem was the investigation was time-consuming and frustrating. Each child had a different version of who started it. Sometimes there were witnesses and sometimes there were no witnesses. Even having witnesses was not always helpful because they often had different versions too.

So the schools decided to make a new “zero tolerance” policy.  Everyone involved in a fight would be suspended, regardless of who started it. This policy was depicted in the movie Dangerous Minds. 

There were several justifications for the policy: 1) If everyone would get suspended, the kids would be “deterred” or discouraged from starting or participating in a flight at school [in came “Meet me after school, across the street;” then the policy extended to include all activity until you reached your home after school].  2) No investigation, so no time investment from the administration was necessary. 3) A cooling-off period for the participants – so hopefully they would get over their issue by the time they returned to school. 4) All children were treated equally – or at least no bias against, or preference for, one of the kids could be a factor.

The schools found the policy to be so successful, mainly in “freeing the administration to focus on more important issues than investigating violations,” schools began using the policy to deal with other issues: drugs, dress code, prohibited items, etc. The idea was, again, all students would be “treated equally” for all violations, time would not be “wasted” due to investigations, and no arguing with parents over decisions.

But let’s look at how that plays out today.
  • Kindergarten boy suspended for wearing a mohawk, despite being Native American. [We had a girl at my high school that wore a mohawk (purple no less), though not native American, and she was never punished, though she was made fun of a lot.]
  • Kindergarten boy suspended for sexual harassment – for kissing girl on the hand. [Wow! That happened to me in second grade! I just thought my hand was dirty and I needed to wash it, thinking boys were disgusting at the time.] 
  • Elementary boy suspended for chewing a pop tart into the shape of a gun. [Really?!! A pop tart? Was there confusion about what it was? Surely a kindergartener could be reasoned with….]
  • Two elementary boys suspended for using a “fingergun” and saying “boom” at another student. [I wanna be a cowboy? Policeman?]
  • Elementary girl suspended for shaving her head (in support of her cancer stricken friend) for a dress code violation. [Dress code requires girls to have hair? Is the length or style specified?]
  • A middle school student was arrested, handcuffed, and taken to a juvenile facility for burping loudly in class. [Really?!! Even if on purpose, arrested?!!]
  • A middle school boy was indefinitely suspended for flashing a three-fingered sign up in the air (The thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger. Think IngloriousBasterds movie, the customary Western European sign for “three”), evidently a gang sign that the boy had no knowledge of, or association with. [Western Europeans immigrants beware….]
  • Middle school girl arrested and charged for spraying herself with perfume after several students teased her for smelling bad. [Herself, never even a threat of spraying others. Nothing happened to the teasers….]
  • Mother of diabetic child has to go to school three times per day to check her elementary student’s numbers and give the child a shot if needed. The child regularly does this himself outside school, but the school has a “zero tolerance” drug policy so he could not even do it in the nurse’s office. As a result, the mother was unable to hold a job. [Talk about the interconnectedness of family and economy.] 
  • Girls choose to skip school because they have cramps and are not allowed to bring Midol to school, or receive it from the school nurse, due to “zero tolerance” drug policy. [Too bad you are a girl. “Toughen up” I guess?]
And I will not even go into the crazy dress code violation suspensions for girls that do not involve mini-skirts and tank tops. [Are we punishing girls for being a distraction to the boy’s learning experience?]

While I am all for schools having safety policies and punishing students for violations, and even understand we live in more complicated times now than when I was young, suspension and arrests of children should be reserved for greater offenses - or situations beyond the capacity of the adults given authority over our children. 

What happened to a “stern talking to,” bringing in the parents for a conversation, and detention? Even "in-school" suspension sounds better.

Yes, I know some parents are not involved. Yes, I know not all parents share the same values. Yes, I know not all kids these days will “pee in their paints” if they have to visit the principal’s office or their parents are called to come down to the school.

[I would have begged for a paddling rather than have my mom be called to the school over something I had done. But then, I was a believer in my mom’s punishment. Just the belief was enough for me.]

I understand this is not true for all students. Still, can we not increase the response to these minor offenses according to the situation? Like in the workplace – a verbal warning, a written warning, and then termination? Something other than removing them from any educational access or forcing them into "alternative" schools (whole other topic).

Most of the kids I mentioned here, if not all, were “first time offenders” and had exemplary school records. I see nothing “fair” about treating them “the same” as excessive, abusive, or dangerous violators.

What value are schools providing to society by suspending kindergarteners? What value are schools providing to society by calling the police for garden variety “disruptive behavior?” 

Schools can do almost anything they like (except corporal punishment I guess) without repercussions. They are the closest things to a police state we have, other than prison itself.

We've taken most of the power away from parents and increased the power of the schools. But instead of responsibly using that power, the schools simply kick kids out of school (send them home to the parents to deal with), or call the police (let the judicial system worry about it). 

If ever there were an argument for the school system being (or becoming) a “school-to-prison pipeline,” this is it.

Our children are not robots. Our children are not born, even with “involved” parents, with the knowledge and experience to make the best choices all the time. That is what we are supposed to be teaching them – including within our school system.

Personally, I just think schools are shirking their responsibilities with zero regard for our children’s education or character development. If schools don’t care whether our children, the future generations, are receiving education (despite their own benefit of funding per student per day), are schools just “holding cells” instead of educational institutions?

Instead of arguing over whether schools can or should teach religion, we should be discussing whether school administrators and policy makers are interested in educating our kids at all. 

Have you or your child experienced "zero tolerance" consequences?

[Disclaimer: I know there are many teachers who give their very soul to their job and, in general, I am not talking about teachers so much as policy makers and administrators practicing excessive “zero tolerance” policies.]