Precinct 333

Sunday, March 06, 2005

A Voice Against Zero Tolerance

One of the most disturbing trends in education during my time in the classroom has been the trend towards zero tolerance policies. Born of a desire to avoid litigation over disparate treatment of students for misconduct that on the surface seems identical, these policies decree draconian punishment for school disciplinary infractions.

A 15-year-old girl decided to die. She took three bottles of prescription medication and proceeded to school. Later that day, her mother received a phone call from a school administrator causing her to rush to the emergency room not knowing whether her daughter was dead or alive.

Upon entering the hospital, the mother was met, not by a doctor, but by a school administrator. There were no condolences, just an administrator informing the mother that, because of school policy, her daughter would be suspended and then remanded to the district's disciplinary alternative school for a mandatory 60 days. She served her suspension in a hospital bed.

Such policies, of course, leave no room for nuanced decision-making, individual differences, or examination of the totality of the facts. Rather, they take a harsh and legalistic approach that allows for no deviation from a harsh standard that gives no consideration to motive, intent, or outcome. Thus the use of pills on the suicide attempt described above was treated no differently than kids passing a joint under the bleachers, and receive exactly the same sanction. A rational approach would have instead seen the girl referred for counseling and returned to class when she was ready, not put into a disciplinary program with the worst kids in the district.

I think back to a case on a campus in my district, involving a student I knew very well. He was an honor student, and one of the leadership cadre in the ROTC program on the campus. That position made him one of the handful of kids on campus to have access to the email system. One day he received a pornographic picture from a student at another school in another district. He immediately sent it to the trash folder, but didn't empty the trash before logging off the program. The other kid was caught by his school sending porn from his school account, and his principal sent an email to the principals of the students who received the emails. The email was found in the trash folder, right where the receiving student had put it -- and as a result that student received a month in the district disciplinary school and (as a consequence) lost all of his rank in the ROTC program. Rather than considering the fact that the email was in the trash folder as evidence of his intent to get rid of the porn, its presence was viewed as evidence of his intent to keep the picture.

Ask any teacher you know -- they will be able to tell you any number of stories about a student who received a disproportionate punishment under zero tolerance policies. So can many parents. That is why parents in one local district have formed Katy Zero Tolerance, a group devoted to restoring the rights of students and parents to reasonable treatment in school discipline situations and to ending the nonsensical application of zero tolerance policies. The example above comes from a column in today's Houston Chronicle by the group's president, Fred Hink. He's promoting Texas Senate Bill 126 and Texas House Bills 442 and 461, which will rein-in some of the abuses cause by zero tolerance policies. These proposals deserve some consideration, and I encourage you to look at the group's website for further information.


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