Monday, March 18, 2013

What Will It Take For "Zero Tolerance" Policies To End?

It's not too surprising that as a nation, we're all out of outrage for stories like Boy Suspended From School For Making “Gun” Out Of A Pop-Tart and Florida high school hero gets suspended AFTER preventing school bus shooting.  It seems that in recent years, stories like this have become as much of a media cliche as "local boy makes good."  They still illicit some sort of reaction, but it's not sustained or strong enough for us to make a serious change to the now standard "zero tolerance" policies in school districts across the country.

An artifact from my earliest teaching experience
"Zero tolerance" sounds great when the most common school story seems to be about mass shootings.  Of course, that's why we have these policies to begin with.  The reality is that "zero tolerance" runs counter to anti-bullying efforts as well as common sense that every good teacher uses within their classroom.

Bullying is nothing new.  I was bullied in middle school (this was years before Columbine), and when I stood up for myself and it inevitably led to a "fight", we were both punished equally.  This was wrong then, and it's wrong now--if a student is bullied and stands up for themselves, or someone defends themselves after someone else starts a fight, it should not result in both students being suspended or otherwise punished.  Obviously, a student intervening to prevent a Columbine-like tragedy should be honored, not punished.

In short, "zero tolerance" discourages anyone from intervening and preventing bullying or other violence--including bystanders--because the consequences are doled out so thoughtlessly. 

This brings us to the second problem: great teachers follow the main theme of Teaching with Love & Logic, the best book ever written about teaching. Great teachers know that the ladder of consequences or any other rigid system simply doesn't work. Every incident should be considered on a case-by-case basis, like it is in exemplary classrooms.  This idea hasn't spread to the school or district level, like many common sense ideas that come from the classroom, but that's because it's easier to follow mindless, blanket policies.

The solution to this problem is very simple: districts and ultimately principals consider each case on it's merits and hand out appropriate consequences accordingly. This would end the practice that led to the Florida teen and any kid that makes a mere gesture of a gun getting suspended.  Keeping "zero tolerance" in place not only fails to protect innocent kids, but also adds to the list of reasons why students are so increasingly disengaged with the entire school system.

Our students deserve a system grounded in reality, like the rest of the world around them.