Articles are available for reprint as long as the author is acknowledged: Domenick J. Maglio Ph.D.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Schools' Unworkable Zero Tolerance Policy

A 13 year-old Ohio girl was suspended for bringing Midol to school. She was handled as if she was a drug pusher. A country boy who forgot to leave the matches he used to burn garbage at home before he left for school is reprimanded. A 10 year-old girl who brought a serrated knife in her lunchbox to cut her steak and a 9 year-old Louisiana boy who drew a picture of a soldier with a knife are treated as violent criminals. Zero tolerance policies do not have any safeguards for students. There is no room for innocent students to present their side of the story. They are just wrong. Common sense is not allowed in zero tolerance policies.

Although these policies are unworkable, they make good news headlines throughout the nation. These policies are easy to justify for everyone wants violence and drugs to be eliminated in our schools. The flaw in this approach is that it is without justice for the individual.

For years schools were being pressured by the public to develop a way to control potentially dangerous situations on school premises. Superintendents have responded by issuing directives to emphasize resolve to eliminate the problem. A uniform policy was required to establish consistency amongst a large and diverse staff. This policy handcuffed the local teachers and administrators from settling each case on a case-by-case basis. This left many students unintentionally breaking the rules. Too often, without knowing, the decent students trespass on a minefield that indiscriminately punishes them. The unintentional and intentional offenders receive the same equally harsh consequences.

“One size fits all” zero tolerance policies actually encourage the culprit and discourage the victim from standing up for himself.

This illogical policy not only empowers juvenile delinquents but creates a greater not less chance for violence by promoting more outrageously aggressive behavior. Offenders learn the worst punishment they are going to receive if caught in the act of intimidating someone will be the same as their victim. Instead of students receiving accolades for having good character and standing up to obnoxious and often dangerous behavior, they are equally punished. It encourages the transgressor to be more aggressive while the innocent is discouraged from protecting himself.

Creating a peaceful school environment takes intensive work by students, teachers and school administrators not a superintendent’s directive. Knowing the students well through frequent interaction, even counseling will decrease opportunities for juvenile delinquents to operate with impunity. It is certainly easier to establish and maintain discipline in a smaller rather than larger school. Even in larger facilities it is possible when all the administrators are directly involved with their pupils.

All administrators need to view safety as their number one priority. Developing a peaceful school environment takes proactive not reactive measures. Students need to know the expectations of their local school. Administrators and teachers of the school need to develop and believe that their procedures are fair and honorable ones. Policies need to be impartially enforced without being influenced by any outside pressure.

Students doing the right things need to be recognized. All school rules need to be specific and well communicated to the students. Witnessing classmates need to be interviewed without involving the students being investigated. A thorough investigation needs to get the facts of the incident before making any decision. The evidence, not politics, should direct the decision making process.

The light of justice is a disinfectant for injustice. This is a time consuming process though well worth it for the safety and security of the students. When students know the school administration’s decisions are just, students will behave more orderly. The potential delinquent comes to understand that mean and abusive behavior will be punished while the appropriate students know the school will protect them.

Schools are places for children to learn how to behave as respectful, kind and responsible people. This behavior cannot be decreed, it has to be shaped by an involved staff constantly teaching right from wrong when misbehavior occurs. The instigator has to be punished and the so-called “victim” should be encouraged by the teacher to directly tell the problem student how he feels. The teacher with the support of the administration should lead the confrontation. This meeting often should take place in front of the class to drive home the difference between appropriate and inappropriate actions. Troublemakers need to be “put down” and the honorable lifted up.

“Zero intelligence” policies sound good but do not teach specific moral lessons. Only teachers, administrators and students getting down to basic facts of situations can arrive at a just decision for everyone involved. The accumulation of doing the right things over time produces a culture of safety in our schools.

Dr. Maglio is the author of Invasion Within and Essential Parenting. He is a psychotherapist and the owner/director of Wider Horizons School.

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