Schools' 'zero tolerance' for common-sense rules


February 16, 1997|By Brian Sullam

THE BOARD OF Education of Anne Arundel County must have a secret agenda to bring back the 1960s student rebellion. How else to explain its refusal to change its punitive "zero tolerance" discipline policy?

The board's current simple-minded, one-size-fits-all discipline system can't help but mobilize students.

It was not surprising that about 70 students cut classes last week to attend a school board meeting. They protested in vain the current policy that resulted in the expulsion for the rest of the school year of John Destry, an honor student at Southern High School who happened to carry a penknife on his key chain to school. This followed an earlier incident when 300 Southern seniors walked out of an assembly in protest of the treatment of their classmate.

Rubin and Hoffman laughing

Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman are probably laughing in their graves. Their anarchistic Yippie movement was built on the senseless rules of society in the 1960s.

Kids today are going to rebel against oppressive authority just as some of their parents did a generation ago. The main activity of adolescents, after all, is testing the limits of home, school and society.

In its quest to develop a totally secure environment, the school board has locked itself into a disciplinary straitjacket. Every infraction is treated as if it were an extreme crime.

Under the current system, there seems to be no allowance for innocent mistakes. Severely punishing exemplary students is one of the unintended consequences of maintaining this system of rigid discipline.

Administrators like the simple, self-executing aspect of the current policy. A student brings a proscribed item to school and he or she is automatically suspended or expelled.

The trade-off is that by treating everyone harshly, the board has depersonalized the system. There is no differentiation among offenses, no recognition of mitigating circumstances, no proportionality of punishment.

Student sub-culture

Students aren't fools. They know which kids are the troublemakers and which ones are the decent kids who inadvertently get into trouble. When the exemplary students such as John Destry are suspended for a semester and troublemakers get away unpunished, students must assume that the adults in charge of the system are fools and that rules are a joke.

The longer these senseless edicts stay on the books, the more likely the school board is going to see an eruption of student unrest.

This time it was a penknife. Next time it may be a nail file or a Swiss Army knife. I would wager that none of the knifing incidents in county schools during the past two decades involved a Swiss Army knife, yet bringing one to school is grounds for expulsion.

Expelling students for mere possession of pen knives does not improve a school's security because the kid who thoughtlessly carries such a knife to school usually is not the one who threatens the safety of others.

John Destry is a good case in point. He has been suspended for the remainder of the year even though he has an almost spotless record. (He did get caught for cutting one class, a transgression he did not repeat.)

He made a stupid mistake by carrying the penknife, which school rules deem a weapon, not a tool. He did not brandish this "weapon" in class nor did he threaten a fellow student. His crime was that he left his keys on his locker. His penknife was attached to the key ring. A fellow student turned them in to the school office. When John came to pick them up, his punishment was automatic.

Had he been intent on causing trouble, he never would have claimed his keys and penknife. He would have left them in the principal's office and would still be attending classes at Southern High.

Jail for jaywalking?

Such punishment constitutes a schoolyard form of the sterotype punishment system associated with fundamentalist Muslims, in which women are stoned for infidelity or thieves have their hands cut off. In a fair and just disciplinary system, punishment is proportional to the crime. Adults would never impose the type of draconian punishment on themselves used in the county schools. However, they seem to have no qualms about imposing it on children.

Imagine the outcry if a first-time speeding ticket resulted in loss of a license for a year, or jaywalking resulted in a jail sentence.

Schools are supposed to be places where children learn lessons. They should be allowed to make mistakes. Rather than suspend or expel a child for a semester, as is the current policy, the board ought to create a more rational system of punishment.

If a student comes to school with a penknife, beeper or pepper spray, why not suspend them for a week, with the admonition that they will receive more severe punishment if they do it again?

Such a system would guarantee that students such as John Destry would be in the classroom -- rather than in the headlines.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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