Friday, March 23, 2001

Zero tolerance for zero tolerance

Another week, another school shooting.

Sometimes, lately, it doesn't have to be another week. It seems that every few days the news comes out that some misfit somewhere has taken up arms against a sea of troubles. Yesterday it was a high school near San Diego, in the same district as the school where two students were killed last week. Despite all the punditry and policy and zero tolerance, the shootings continue.

As a parent who drops my two precious kids off at school each morning expecting they'll be safe, I'm naturally horrified by the violence. But as the parent of one little misfit, I think I'm honestly more worried about the zero tolerance policies. Anything that gives administrators leave to deal with kids in a by-the-book, cookie-cutter fashion is not going to make matters any better. If there's no discretion built into the policy, you get things like kids being suspended for bringing in nail clippers. And if there is discretion, I wonder if this all becomes a convenient way for schools to get rid of their most difficult students.

I'm not the only one worrying about this. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University has found that zero tolerance punishments disproportionately target minority and special-needs students. As reported in Wrightslaw's July newsletter, "Under the IDEA: 'If a child's misconduct is caused by the disability OR by the school system's failure to provide appropriate services and supports to address the disability, the system's power to impose discipline is limited.' But the Civil Rights Project found that "in many circumstances, school officials are ignoring the law, and parents and students are unaware of their rights or unable to enforce them."

As a parent of a boy whose misconduct is certainly caused by his disability, and has often been worsened by the school system's failure to provide appropriate services and supports, I have to wonder how he's going to make it through the system without falling afoul of somebody's idea of intolerable behavior. He's not a bad kid or a violent kid; he is an impulsive kid, a kid who sometimes doesn't have a clue where other people are coming from, a suggestible kid who will do silly things that others tell him to, and a kid who repeats lines from TV shows perseveratively. My readings on FAE do not give me confidence that he will increase in judgment and control as he ages. Right now, at age 8 and looking and acting much younger, protected in his self-contained classroom with his one-on-one aide, he probably can stay out of trouble. But can I see him one day saying the wrong thing or imitating the wrong cartoon-channel action and causing some overzealous administrator to see him as a threat? You bet.

And in the larger context, as we see so many children turning to violence because they don't fit in or they've been tormented by their more popular classmates, I'm not at all sure that just cracking down on any hint of violent behavior is the most effective way to stem this tide. Clearly, the bullying and torment that goes on in schools has to be addressed, too, and not in a way that makes the misfits the problem. That, of course, would mean having zero tolerance for the things that the "good" kids, the school leaders, the football players, the cheerleaders, the shiny happy students that make the school look good get into. And certainly also having zero tolerance for teachers and administrators who brand certain kids as trouble before they've even caused any.

Absolutely, I want my kids' schools, and our nation's schools, to be safe. But I think if we're going to get there, it's going to take more tolerance for the misfits, not less. And certainly not zero.

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