Discipline without reason is senseless

March 06, 2001|By Susan Reimer

AN 11-YEAR-OLD GIRL is found with a plastic knife in the lunchbox her grandmother packed for her and is hauled away from school in a police car.

A fifth-grader takes and hides razor blades after his friend threatens to use them against another child and receives a year's suspension.

An 8-year-old boy is suspended for three days for pointing a piece of breaded chicken at a teacher and pretending to shoot.

These incredible tales come to us from the school file marked "zero tolerance."

This is what happens, with alarming frequency, when schools decide to apply discipline evenly but without any common sense. Zero tolerance can mean that possession of a nail file, a fingernail clipper, aspirin or an inhaler can be grounds for mandatory expulsion from school. Or worse, the child can be thrust into the juvenile justice system.

At its meeting in San Diego last month, the American Bar Association approved a resolution opposing zero-tolerance polices in schools. The resolution has no official weight, but the lawyers' group hopes it will influence the federal government and state legislatures to back off on a safe-schools policy that has jumped its tracks.

In 1994, in response to public fears over school violence, Congress passed the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act. It mandated that any school receiving federal funds must automatically expel any student who takes a gun to school.

Quickly, the list of offenses requiring mandatory punishments grew to include drugs, alcohol and assault, but also BB guns, toy guns, knives of any description, scissors, paper clips and over-the-counter drugs including aspirin and cough drops. Some schools added theft, verbal abuse and sexual harassment to the list.

"This is the get-tough approach that permeates the criminal justice system, and now it has trickled down into the schools," says Johanna Wald of Harvard's Civil Rights Project, co-author of a critical report on zero tolerance school policies.

In its most fearful manifestation, the policy has been used to justify disciplining students for references to violence in their essays and artwork: A 13-year-old from Texas was assigned to write a scary Halloween story and spent six days in jail for writing about shooting up a school.

In case after case, students are being harshly disciplined for breaking rules where there was no harm done and none intended.

"I'm not a great proponent of zero tolerance," says Nancy Grasmick, Maryland school superintendent. "Kids don't know what that means."

A former suspension officer, Grasmick always asked the kids who came before her if they understood the rule they were accused of breaking.

"This is just adults who want to feel good about being really strict with kids. Students aren't going to have respect for a system unless it makes sense," she says.

In Maryland, the state Board of Education has allowed each of its 24 jurisdictions to write its own disciplinary code. Some are tougher than others, Grasmick says, but all are written with an ear toward federal guidelines. She thinks the ABA resolution will be reflected in future guidelines.

"I think it will be influential, and I am happy about that," she says.

The ABA declared that the policy violates a student's right of due process by requiring automatic punishment, regardless of the circumstances.

But aside from violating the Constitution, zero tolerance doesn't work.

Despite public perception, crime has been declining on public school campuses since 1990, making this harsh policy unnecessary if not irrelevant. And though it was supposed to eliminate bias by punishing all students identically, zero tolerance disproportionately affects black and Hispanic students, according to research reported by the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

Zero tolerance does not permit administrators to consider the circumstances surrounding an incident, a student's previous disciplinary record or his citizenship standing in the school.

What students learn from this kind of enforcement is that no reasonable explanation is accepted, no second chances given.

Just at the time in their lives when they need most to bond with, and trust, adults, students see the authority figures in their schools abandoning common sense and responding without compassion or discretion.

Worse, the policy banishes the offending children from school, depriving them of education and the pro-social messages and adult guidance they might receive in school.

Current events would have me believe that my children are in danger of being shot by a troubled classmate while studying in the library or eating lunch in the cafeteria. But that is not what I fear.

I am afraid that my daughter will be suspended from school for six months for gulping down a couple of Advil before taking to the basketball court on sore knees.

Or my son will be cuffed and loaded into a police car for putting his buddy in a playful hold to stop his annoying chatter.

Under a policy of zero tolerance, any exercise in the kind of bad judgment kids are famous for could dash college dreams, cut the last tether keeping a kid in school or land that child in front of a judge.

And while a student may escape the worst zero tolerance has to offer, what lesson has been learned in the process?

That adults have absolute authority, but are also blindly obedient to an unseen power? That Big Brother is watching, and that there is no good explanation, no extenuating circumstance, no second chances?

I think students learn from zero tolerance policies that schools are not safe for them.

And it has nothing to do with guns.

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