Zero tolerance: Is that really what city schools need?

November 09, 1998|By Edward Burns

HE COMES into a world that does not honor him, a world where the only consistency is inconsistency, a world where broken promises and small disappointments rival the number of vials and glassine bags that litter the neighborhood he calls home. It is his turf. Here he will soak up a culture that will given him all the skills he will need to survive.

And all is as it is supposed to be until the day comes when that school bell rings. Then with a clear plastic book bag strapped to his back and a canvas lunch bag, decorated with a cartoon character, gripped tightly in his hand, he is plopped down in a classroom.

An adult stands before him and calls for quiet, then asks everyone to be seated. He hears her words, but he is suspicious of grown-ups, so he pauses. Many of the children sit immediately, but he notices others hesitate, too. Finally, he shrugs and sits. He is a smart child, and he is more than willing to give this a go.

The days and weeks and months pass, and he finds pleasure in some of the experiences, but there are the odd moments when he senses that something about this process of education runs counter to his inclination. There was that time when he was deep into a coloring book, putting the finishing touches on Superman's cape and staying within the lines, too, when the adult told him that she was ready to begin to work with him on his numbers. He was quick to tell her what he thought of that unwanted transition. Time out, he was told. He wondered: Now why was that?

Turning the table

Then there was the encounter with the little girl. She had the book he wanted so he grabbed it from her and for good measure gave her a push. She began to cry. To his surprise, the adult did not yank her to her feet, nor did she slap her for crying. In fact, she made no effort to crimp up the wimp. Instead, she turned on him. A parent conference, he was told. He thought: Go figure!

Years pass, and while others in his class chart their progress by report cards, he has an alternative marking system: Time out and lunch detention, he gives himself a check plus on both counts; short-term suspension and long-term suspension, check; and grade failure and social promotion, got that, too. And what is it now, 12 times that he has been told not to bother to come to school, he would not be going on a class trip. Have to mark that up as another check plus.

Worlds apart

For a while, it was confusing. He knows he makes the right moves, but no matter what he does, somehow that person in the front of the room always seems to get angry with him. He feels like he has a foot in two worlds.

By middle school, he has pretty much worked through the contradiction. It is simple. School is where you prepare for your future. And by now, he knows his future.

So with a legion of new-found friends, he begins to take full advantage of this process. He is in those hallways running wild, cursing, shoving, fighting, having a great time.

He does not just break the rules, he shatters them. The nearly invisible cracks in his public persona blossom. And never mind authority figures, their response is predictable. Crack down. But he is OK with that, after all isn't that what the older crews face back in the neighborhoods? Yeah, boy.

A growth spurt later and he is moved along to Patterson or Northern or Southern high schools. The scales have tipped. He is a foot taller and a whole lot stronger than those who stand in front of the room babbling on about fractions and Shakespeare.

That is their agenda. He cannot be bothered. He is busy doing graduate work on his major: the corner. And he brings that text to school every day. And if one of those adults has a problem with that, they'd better have the school police for backup when they step to him.

And now, when his educational arc is just about complete and he is thinking of leaving, wouldn't you know, they come up with a whole new dimension to his curriculum -- something far better than phonics.

We are talking state of the art here: surveillance cameras and metal detectors, increased police presence and hall monitors, frisks and warrantless searches, alternative schools and expulsion. You got it: zero tolerance. Why, they don't even have that in the 'hood yet! Yeah, boy, you got to love it.

Edward Burns, a retired Baltimore police detective, is a Baltimore City public school teacher and author with David Simon of "The Corner, A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood."

Pub Date: 11/09/98

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