When Zero Tolerance Policy Goes Overboard
As parents buy school supplies and new backpacks and sign up their children for lunch and after-school programs, they hope their kids will have the best education and experience when return to a new classroom.
But parents can’t control everything happening while their children are at school, including the way the way teachers and school administrators deal with students, especially when it comes to zero tolerance policies on guns, sexual harassment and dress codes.
Earlier this year, a sixth grader at a Virginia Beach public school took razor blade away from another student who was cutting himself with it. She threw it away and told school officials about the incident who suspended her for 10 days. This episode and many others show that even with good intentions, students are at the mercy of school administrators.
“The primary goal of zero tolerance was to keep guns out of schools, but the bar went lower and lower,” Ed Krayewski, associate editor at Reason Magazine, told The Fiscal Times. “It started with good intentions but it went too far.”
Reasons cited by schools for suspending students, often tweens or even children under the age of 10, have in many cases backfired, whether it’s a Mohawk haircut, a boy wearing a feminine outfit, or a child biting a cookie in the shape of a gun.
Krayewski thinks that complying closely with such policies is an easy way for teachers and school administrators to avoid having to make decisions on sensitive issues.
“It limits the liability of the administration, because once they say they have a choice, they can be second guessed,” he said. “But it’s shameful because they’re professionals and they should make decisions.”
Zero tolerance policies carry huge consequences for students. Psychologically, a five-year-old boy being accused of sexual harassment for having kissed a girl on the cheek or a 10-year-old boy being suspended for sporting a haircut highlighting his favorite sports team could have long-term devastating consequences.
“Sometimes, common sense goes out of the window and we make criminals out of kids who in some cases have done nothing wrong,” said Henry Gault, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the Chicago suburbs and a member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He noted that children could start disliking school, question their identity or feel depressed. “The older the child, the more important the [psychological] consequences are going to be. That really worries me.”
Academically, students are prevented from participating in classwork during the time they are suspended; and the incident will be indelibly stamped on their record and follow them for years.
There is good news though: some school systems in Baltimore, California and Colorado have recently revised their code of discipline to prevent suspensions for less serious offenses, with positive results, including a reduction in the dropout rate and a higher high-school graduation rate, according to a commentary piece in Education Week.
Until more school systems follow the lead, it’s likely we’ll hear and read of more instances of zero tolerance policy run amok. “It’s a very destructive policy,” said Gault. “Zero tolerance frequently makes zero sense”
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