When I was a blogger for Reality101 (Council for Exceptional Children's blog for new teachers) I wrote a lengthy piece about zero-tolerance. I was writing in the wake up a high profile school shooting and lamenting the fact that we hear so few opinions from local educators about how to reduce or eliminate such actions.

I was also concerned, probably more so, about the ridiculous policy foisted upon schools called Zero-Tolerance. After citing several examples of the absurd way zero-tolerance has been enforced in our schools I wrote:

I teach special education. I also teach a room full of boys. I have toys in my room that are used for sensory breaks—toys like Lincoln Logs, Legos, blocks, little plastic soldiers and other things. My students, my boys, build lasers, play soldiers, play secret agents, cowboys among other reality-based fantasy and role-playing games. I also happen to be teaching in a rural school district where the opening of deer season is akin to a national holiday and camouflage tuxedos adorn the yearly prom (I jest, of course, but camo is a popular clothing style in our school district).  

If I practiced the same zero-tolerance described in the articles above in my classroom, my students would never be in school. That is not rhetoric; that is reality. In many ways, this is what kids do: they imagine themselves as soldiers, cowboys, police officers. I did it growing up, as did my brothers and countless other boys and girls. If I took away the Legos and Lincoln Logs the boys in my class would use pencils or crayons or my pointer stick as guns. In other words, in special education, this is not merely a black-and-white issue. On the other hand, even in general education this is not merely a black-and-white issue.

I think it should be clear enough to most people that common sense would be a more appropriate law than zero-tolerance. Well, now we have the federal government stepping up to the plate again and interfering with local school districts:

The memo, jointly released by the departments of Justice and Education on Wednesday, urges public schools to ditch so-called "zero tolerance" policies the feds claim disproportionately affect minority students. The letter, which was sent to all public schools, said even well-intentioned policies are discriminatory if they end up being applied in greater proportion to minority children.

I'd like to make a few points here.

First, I agree 100% that zero-tolerance laws are absolutely absurd. What we need is common-sense and redirection. The point I made in my blog post is that boys are boys and boys do things that boys do: make fake guns, wrestle, chest thump, make sounds of explosions–they engage in reckless behavior and take many unecessary risks. But these are not reasons for boys to be expelled or suspended or sent to detention. These are occasions to educate and inform.

“It’s just the way they play, but the policy doesn’t allow for common sense.” [Christina Sommers as quoted by foxnews.com]

I suspect that if we continue shoving Ritalin and other medications down boys' throats, continue practicing zero-tolerance and boys live in constant fear of suspension if they so much as pass gas, and the ongoing effort to neutralize the male instinct in boys continues we are going to end up with a generation of men who will forever be content to sit back and let others run over them and run the world.

Second, this is not (only or primarily) an issue of minorities–it is an issue of boys. The foxnews.com article ends this way:

Other experts say that zero tolerance policies affect not just particular minority groups but all students, especially young male students, unfairly.

“The Attorney General was right, but if you look across the board, boys are being punished for simply being boyish,” Christina Sommers, a resident scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, told FoxNews.com, referring to recent stories about how young male students were suspended and expelled for making a gun gesture with their finger and making a play weapon from a Pop Tart.

This is true. With a few exceptions where girls have been the targets of such absurd measures, by and large it is boys–of all races, creeds, and colors–who have suffered under zero-tolerance laws. I have seen it first hand, which is why in my classroom I do not practice zero-tolerance: I practice common sense and hold every student–boy or girl, black or white–to the same level of accountability.

Third, while I fully agree that zero-tolerance ought to be replaced by common sense, I absolutely disagree that it is the responsibility of the federal government to issue fiats and directives to schools indicating such things ought to happen. Frederick Hess was quoted by Foxnews.com as saying:

“As best I can tell, they are telling schools that even if you have policies that are clearly neutral, that are clearly evenhanded, that are clearly designed to create safe environments for students and educators, DOJ still might come down on you like a ton of bricks,” Hess said.

He is correct. And I will say explicitly what he is kind of hinting at: the federal government of the United States of America needs to stay out of local educational policies. If a school wants to implement zero-tolerance, then so be it; if a school wants to adopt a more common-sense based approach to discipline, then so be it. It is not the responsibility of the federal government–and damn the 'good-intentions' monologue–to be a nanny to every single school district in every single state. Continued, bold, excursions by the federal government into education is only making it more difficult to educate students. It is also making it more difficult to give students the quality of education they deserve.

School should be a place of learning and joy and good memories, but when students have to live in constant fear of suspensions and expulsions for minor offenses–well, it takes its toll on everyone involved. It certainly isn't helpful when everyone from the principal to the pre-school is at defcon 5 every minute, of every day.

This is part of my platform for educational reform in America: local schools, by and large, have smart people in charge and they do not need the federal governments condescending to instruct us in what is 'in the best interests of the children.' We do not need their reforms, their philosophies, and we sure as hell do not need their meddling. We need them to get the hell out of our way and let us do the hard work of educating the next generation of children. When the federal government encroaches upon state and local juridiction everyone loses.

Related articles

Thoughts on Education Reform, Pt 2: Government Meddling in Education
Loving my Students
Thoughts on Education Reform, Pt 1: Athletics & Academics
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