Senior pranksters at my son’s high school sprayed the school with silly string and Saran wrap the day before yesterday. Because of the school’s Zero Tolerance policy, the police are involved and, if caught, the offenders will face criminal charges of trespass and vandalism – marks on their criminals records that will follow them the rest of their lives.
Zero Tolerance in our schools is dangerously stupid and naive because the implementation of it is fundamentally flawed. Zero Tolerance means that intent does not matter. The kid who brings a pocket knife to for show and tell and the kid who brings a knife to hurt someone are treated exactly the same.
The concept of zero tolerance is deceptively simple: regardless of situation or intent, the punishment is the same for an infraction and authorities are forbidden from modifying or mitigating the punishment. It’s a one size fits all approach to issue management in our schools.
AND IT DOES NOT WORK. Because we have confused Zero Tolerance with “maximum punishment” and “setting an example for others.” And, mostly, it creates criminals out of children whose only “crime” is curiosity, lack of maturity, and lack of knowledge.
We all get irate when we hear stories about the first grader who brought his boy scout knife in for show and tell and got expelled. The story of the kid who brought his camp utensils into school to eat lunch (because he thought they were cool) and was sentenced for 45 days in reform school makes us angry at the entire concept of zero tolerance. The fourth grader who pointed a finger at a teacher and said “pow!” and got a criminal record reminds how blind such arbitrary rules are. The angry teens in high school who fight in the hallways aren’t scolded anymore – they are suspended and possibly expelled.
Zero Tolerance, as it is commonly implemented, does not work on our children or in our schools because it is contrary to the nature of training and teaching children. Childhood is a preparation for adulthood. Lessons are structured to prepare them for life and the consequence of disobedience or failure is necessarily less stringent than adulthood. Children are not adults and to levy zero tolerance laced with maximum punishment on a child for an infraction that they can’t even understand, much less knowingly commit, is not just wrong; it’s criminal on our part to so punish a child.
When I was in high school, I was the “dark, brooding, and wounded poet” for a while. I was filled with teen angst, I railed against the system, and I committed all my deepest, darkest, and innermost feelings into the pages of my notebook. I was proud of my notebook and my words. They were rough, often incomplete, but a true reflection of my feelings and thoughts. I showed these writing to my teachers and peers – who talked to me, helped me become a better writer, and introduced me to other passionate poets who I might find a connection with. They were not threatened by me – they saw a creative and passionate young man.
Today, were I in high school and showed my notebook to a teacher, I would be hauled up on criminal charges. I wrote about death – mine and people I knew. I wrote about violence, committed in fiction by myself or upon me. I wrote about injustices that I witnessed or committed. I fought in school – all the time. I was the defender of the weak; my mission was to stand up for the underdog and stop the bullies from bullying. I was the bully’s bully. I was often caught, reprimanded, and even paddled – but I was never suspended and I never had criminal charges filed against me.
Despite a lack of concrete evidence that Zero Tolerance actually decreases violence, drugs, or crime in our schools – school boards continue to advocate these policies or risk looking weak on the issues. Ultimately, it’s our kids that pay the price for these “zero intelligence” policies.
There’s two issues at heart here with Zero Tolerance:
- Punishing innocent children who don’t understand the significance of an infraction – punishment that may follow them all the days of their lives.
- Preventing children from learning and understanding appropriate behavior for their “darker” emotions of anger and hurt.
Let’s discuss them both. When a first grader, filled with pride at being a Boy Scout, brings his Scout pocket knife to school for show and tell gets expelled we are sending the wrong message. We all agree that weapons, even “whittling” or pocket knives should not be in school. This, by the way is a new concept. I remember being able to have a pocket knife in school – in the 1970’s. The child gets expelled, taken away from his friends, away from the environment he thought was safe, told he did something so egregious that he can’t be around other kids, and has his transcripts marked as such. His entire life and possibly his future, altered by an innocent desire to show off his cool knife to his classmates. His self-esteem dwindles. His insecurities rise. His distrust of those in authority skyrocketed.
That’s Zero Tolerance. There is no lesson there – there is only punishment. The lesson, if there is one, is to distrust those in authority because there is no compassion, no leniency, and even small infractions are treated as criminal matters.
These policies do indeed lack intelligence. The school is the only place where many kids learn appropriate social behavior. Children spend years of their life in a controlled social environment that is meant to prepare them for their futures as adults. They need to learn appropriate ways in which to conduct themselves in social situations. They need to learn how to deal with rejection, conflict, hurt, and all of the negative emotions we all feel. And they learn most of these lessons in school.
I surmise that Zero Tolerance leads to MORE violence, and greater in degree at that.
Children are mammals. They are animals – just like the rest of us. Just like a litter of puppies, children will fight and misbehave. It’s animal instinct and we cannot suppress it no matter how much we want to. When we punish to the extreme any infraction, with no tolerance , children don’t learn necessary control or understand the consequences of their behavior. We do not prepare them for their unsupervised futures as adults and, indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised when a child goes “ballistic” and hurts other and themselves. After all – we never taught them how to control themselves – we only taught them that ANY behavior deemed unacceptable will be met with the stiffest possible sentence.
Shame on us. We’ve turned our schools from institutions of learning into institutions.
These kids I described above are, in the eyes of the school, criminals. Are they in yours? If not, why do you continue to support Zero Tolerance policies? Intent and circumstances do matter – and you need to take a stand against “zero intelligence.”
Let our kids be kids.