October 2014

October 2014
Blog of Education

Zero Tolerance in Schools

Zero Tolerance is the policy in schools of corrective action with no exceptions and no extenuating circumstances. On its face, it looks like a tough policy, it sounds tough and for many weak administrators it is the best course of action when faced with a controversial decision. It is often applied to drugs, alcohol, firearms and knives. Sometimes it is applied to electronics and even classroom birthday cupcakes. It is the best policy going for those with no backbone and it is the target of this blog this month.

When I was in high school, incidents of school violence were perceived much less. There was very little coverage in the media of firearm incidents (Columbine was the first widely covered) and students with violent tendencies did not see this media coverage as an instant audience. When I was in high school, we had a rifle team that practiced in the building with .22’s on wheeled targets with live ammo in the school’s shooting range. We also had archery as a regular physical education (Gym class to the less politically correct) class activity. I grew up before the shooting range was dismantled, before the bows and arrows were locked up (still in the building though) and before the media started to make school shooters into martyrs. I grew up in different times.

Since I graduated high school and as long as I can remember as a teacher the zero tolerance policy has been the standard for firearms, drugs, knives, etc. etc. I’ve watched in the news stories about an Eagle Scout who left his 2” pocket knife and survival kit in his trunk only to be given a 20 day suspension for having a “weapon”. I watched as a 7 year old Maryland boy was suspended for biting a pop tart into the shape of a gun. I watched countless other times as administrators stuck to their guns (no pun intended) and followed through with their policies. Administrators are quick to tell you they are just carrying out board of ed policy and they don’t like it either but they are also not standing up to those policies and demanding change. I’m here to tell you these administrators are part of the problem.

Here is a different story. At a previous job working with kids I was asked to attend an off campus field trip. One student, a do-gooder 18 years old with a well-known background in outdoors travel/experience with his dad,  had a small pocket knife in his front pocket visible by the clip. He was a good kid, not prone to aggression and with hours of charitable work under his belt.  I pulled him aside and told him how to carry it better concealed. He thanked me, put his small pocket knife away and that was the end of it. I know today he is doing well, adjusted to adult life and with a solid job and wife and kids at home. Had this event taken place in my current job, I would have to report him and he would be suspended. If he were found to be carrying that knife and I ignored this, I could be disciplined. As much as I hate the zero tolerance policy, I too have to enforce it because I love my job more than my ego, pride or perspective. It sucks, it really does.

The difference between the pop tart eaters and the way I handled the pocket knife do-gooder is discretion, a trait many administrators lack. It doesn’t take a lifetime of study to know the signs of trouble. Pre-action indicators aren’t difficult to read and there are exceptions to rules. Had my do-gooder been carrying a cheap steak knife in his bag the story would have ended differently. That by the way is one of the most common blades found on kids as it is often stolen from their parents house and easily disposable. Someone with a good pocket knife should be treated differently. Yes, I know what you’re saying, “good knives can be stolen too.” Yes they can, BUT, they aren’t always carried openly and the thief won’t let others know he has it. My do-gooder was cool calm and collected when addressed man to man and he didn’t display any suspicious behavior or shady responses. Imagine for a minute how zero tolerance would play out in the real world in dealing with police. We want police to use discretion so why not those administrators who enforce policies as well?  Again, discretion is the key and thankfully zero tolerance provides those with no discretion and all book knowledge some policy courage. Please read my sarcasm. Zero tolerance standards would have suspended him, likely had him arrested, and given him a record that could have interfered with his plans that put him where he is today.

Why then is zero tolerance still used if we know it can ruin kids’ lives? Here is why, it can’t be perceived as preferential. At the expense of the occasional good kid’s record, it protects administrators from being called racist or, get this, bullies. Yes, we forget teachers and principals are not above the bully label. There are far few administrators today who will simply speak from the heart and say what we are all thinking. “You’re getting expelled because you’re a #&*@ %! and you will never have the chance to negatively impact the good kids here.” Instead, it sounds like this, “According to our zero tolerance policy, you can’t have this so we’re giving you this”. It’s time to grow some spine and handle issues when they are really issues. A good kid who has a reasonable item on him should not be held to the same standard as a thug. Then again, for something to be reasonable you have to have reason which zero tolerance takes out of the equation.

While I focused on the issue of pop tarts and pocket knives, there are other examples of when the zero tolerance policy should be thrown out. I know of one student questioned for a belt buckle shaped like a miniature rifle. What caliber would it fire? I know of another student who was questioned when crying on her phone while speaking to her mother. Cell phone use is prohibited during school hours but when a student is crying and not letting others see her cry, it is different than the drama magnet caused by crying over a boyfriend. It’s not always easy to identify the differences between real and perceived issues but when you are right, you take the right action and when you are wrong you learn.

Leaders don’t always make the best decisions. In cases of zero tolerance, the decisions are black and white but not always right. To me, leadership should set the example of applying discretion as this is a more important life skill than following a rule that takes discretionary power from the individual. I’ll always respect an administrator more who is truly is fair than one who simply applies a rule fairly. Until zero tolerance reform is revisited, we will continue to have idiots make cases out of breakfast snacks and criminals out of do gooders.