Thursday, October 1, 2009

Zero tolerance gets detention

Last year, a ten-year-old boy in North Carolina was suspended from school because he had a broken pencil sharpener in his possession. The tiny sliver of metal that shaves wood away from the graphite was deemed to be the equivalent of a cavalry saber, putting the school in, as the local paper put it, "the precarious position between the district's zero tolerance policy against having weapons at school and common sense." Arizona's Savana Redding had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to find justice after she was strip-searched at her school on suspicion of possessing ibuprofen -- the common and legal painkiller that was, nevertheless, forbidden from school grounds. That such incidents are no rarity is clear from a Web search on "zero tolerance" and "schools" and by legislation that just took effect in Texas returning a modicum of rationality to the treatment of students found in possession of pocket knives, pain relievers and other items forbidden by insanely restrictive policies.

Horror stories related to zero-tolerance policies have grabbed headlines for as long as the rigid policies have existed. That could have been predicted by anybody with half a brain. If a policy draws unforgiving lines when it comes to "violence," "drugs" and "weapons," then it's inevitable that children will be expelled and even arrested and jailed for writing gory stories, toting penknives and sharing aspirin.

As the outrage, ridicule and lawsuits in response to zero-tolerance, even the legislators and educators who'd implemented the policies to absolve themselves of the responsibility for difficult decisions began to back away from what they had wrought. Even the laziest school administrator must recoil at the response to nine- and ten-year olds hauled away in handcuffs for drawing violent pictures with crayons, if not at the reality of the incidents themselves.

So, finally, we get legislation intended to alleviate the worst abuses of zero-tolerance policies.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Texas's "law relating to consideration of mitigating factors in determining appropriate disciplinary action to be taken against a public school student" was signed by the governor just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the strip search of Savana Redding was unconstitutional. The law eliminates the unforgiving nature inherent in prevailing rules by requiring that educators consider four factors when considering what should be done about infractions of school rules. Specifically, the law mandates:

consideration will be given, as a factor in each decision concerning suspension, removal to a disciplinary alternative education program, expulsion, or placement in a juvenile justice alternative education program, regardless of whether the decision concerns a mandatory or discretionary action, to:

(A) self-defense;
(B) intent or lack of intent at the time the student engaged in the conduct;
(C) a student's disciplinary history; or
(D) a disability that substantially impairs the student's capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the student's conduct;

Strictly speaking, nothing about the law specifically ends the madness of children penalized for pocket knives, drawings and painkillers, but it does strip school officials of the ability to claim that their hands are tied by black-letter rules. From now on, the responsibility for each school disciplinary decision in Texas can be laid at the feet of a human being, not passed off to a piece of paper or a few paragraphs on a Website.

Still, Texas Zero Tolerance, a group formed in response to the horror stories, warns that "What the bill does not do, however, is extend due process to the accused children and their parents. ... Until parents are allowed in the principal’s office before punishment has been decided, we will continue to see travesties of justice."

Also, the group wants to see a formal appeals process in place for challenging disciplinary decisions (some of them pretty devastating, such as expulsion) up the bureaucratic food chain.

Until that happens, laws like the one taking effect in Texas will be only an incomplete first step toward keeping public schools as viable contenders in an era when educational alternatives chosen by families, including charter schools, homeschooling and private schools, are becoming increasingly available and attractive.

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Anonymous MamaLiberty said...

Ending "zero tolerance" in government indoctrination centers is good, of course.

Far better would be empty government indoctrination centers... because parents decided to actually educate their own children and stop allowing the state to intimidate, emasculate and destroy their minds... There are many viable alternatives.

But that would take a lot more effort and dedication than passing a new "law."

October 2, 2009 6:50 AM  
Blogger Ayn R. Key said...

In addition to violence and drugs, there's the whole sex issue (such as sexting) that gets zero tolerance responses. Throwing kids in jail for being too familiar with each other is done "for the children".

October 3, 2009 8:38 PM  

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