Monday, October 12, 2009

Keeping Schools Safe by Avoiding Common Sense

Six-year-old Zachary Christie has been suspended from school and faces 45 days in a reform school. What Stephen King novel–worthy acts did he perpetrate on his teacher and classmates? Is he a budding pyromaniac? Is his vocabulary limited to four-letter sailor-esque slurs? Did he disfigure the class hamster?

Of course, it's none of this. Little Zachary got excited about joining the Cub Scouts and wanted to share that excitement with his friends, and he made the mistake of bringing his new "camping utensil" to school. This camping utensil serves as a spoon, fork, and knife. That's right . . . Zachary Christie has been suspended from the first grade for bringing a knife to school.

In the wake of Columbine and Virginia Tech, Zachary's school has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for bringing weapons into a school. What they haven't done is temper that lack of tolerance with common sense, forethought, and concern for a child's intellectual and emotional education.

Honestly, I thought we were past this. I don't personally think that zero-tolerance positions do any good — especially at this age level — but you can keep your zero-tolerance policies as long as you consider what "zero tolerance" really means.

Take a different example of something that is not tolerated in schools: bikinis. All schools have guidelines about what students can wear to school — from dress codes to school uniforms — and whether it is written down or not, you simply can't come to school wearing nothing but a bikini. It simply isn't tolerated.

So if a girl (or boy, I don't want to be sexist!) comes to school in a bikini, are they suspended and carted off to a reform school for 45 days? No. They are sent home to change clothes. It's that simple: A zero-tolerance policy that doesn't involve horribly marring a child's education and extinguish any love of learning that a child might already have.

(And before you argue that a pocketknife is more dangerous than a bikini, consider the my-child-is-ruined attitude that many had following Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.)

Unfortunately, the rules don't give school officials the leeway to deal with these situations case by case — for fear of seeming discriminatory. Zero-tolerance rules don't account for the differences between a handgun, a Swiss army knife, a Molotov cocktail, or a box cutter. How long will it be before schools start applying the same rules to the contents of a student's backpack that the FSA applies to carry-ons? We're nearly there already.

So zero-tolerance policies aren't the problem; the discipline punishment that follows with them is. Here's the worst that should have happened to poor Zachary: He gets his pocket scimitar taken from him and is sent to the principal's office; his parents are called in for a conference; they have a chat about the zero-tolerance policy. Maybe Zach gets detention.

If Zachary continues to try to bring his death-maker to school, then and only then does the reaction need to escalate.

What? That sounds like a three-strikes rule? Well sure — a three-strikes rule might make sense. What's more, a zero-tolerance rule and a three-strikes rule are not mutually exclusive!

Think about it, zero-tolerance is about rule-breaking, and three-strikes is about the punishment for that rule-breaking. Zero-tolerance for something means that you won't let it exist or happen in your bailiwick. It doesn't (have to) mean that whoever tries bring that something into your bailiwick is a dangerous, psychologically broken individual who should be separated from the general population and punished beyond reason.

I wish I could say I'm surprised when I read stories like this. Saddened, yes. Frustrated, absolutely. But in a country where school boards consider teaching creationism in science class, I can't really expect them to apply common sense when they decide what a student can and can't bring to class. And apparently I can't expect them to realize that fair rules must take into account that first graders, sixth graders, and high school seniors each have different intellectual, emotional, and physical characteristics.

Homeschooling is looking better all the time.

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