Some years ago, I was at a playground when I found an empty glass liquor bottle. Rather than allow it to get broken and maybe hurt some little kid, I picked it up and put it in the trash can. If I had done that as a student at a public school playground I would have faced suspension for “posessing” the liquor bottle.
Today is the height of “back to school” season. Millions of kids begin classes today, joining those who began last week, and getting a head start on those who do not begin until after Labor Day. Today, police officers in a variety of municipalities will take advantage of the newly reinstated school zones to boost the city coffers under the pretext of student safety, never mind the dwindling population of true “walker” students. This afternoon, millions of kids will bring home student/parent handbooks, replete with buzzword–compliant mission statements, dress codes, school lunch policies, school library hours, computer lab use policies, important phone numbers the Principal hopes you will never dial, and of course rules.
Some of these rules will be common sense: don’t hurt fellow students; don’t run in the hallways; don’t take stuff that isn’t yours; don’t damage school property; don’t cheat; if you are in the halls during classes, you’d better have a hall pass or be prepared to explain yourself. Some of them — and these will vary wildly by school — will make sense if you think about them for a few minutes: keep covers on your textbooks so they stay in good condition; no parents dropping in at lunchtime because it’s a big distraction; no apparel advertising or glorifying the use of drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes because it’s not legal for students to be using such substances. Some of them at any given time may be kneejerk reactions to something that has happened in the past: all book bags must be clear; no thong underwear; a list of items considered “gang” apparel and therefore prohibited.
Some or all of these rules may be enforced under a “Zero Tolerance Policy.” This means that if the rule is broken, school officials have no choice but to levy the district presribed punishment. It is most common to apply such a policy to contraband and violence — sometimes including the threat or planning of real or fictional violence. Such policies are popular with schools because they give the illusion of safety and security. It allows schools to hide behind policy by giving staff a set of immutable guidlines that can be applied uniformly by absolutely anybody. It gives parents and the community the false impression that problems will be dealt with in a swift and uniform manner, that certain behaviors do not occur simply because they will not be tolerated. In reality such policies often mask problems, teach distrust of authority, are used as an excuse to get certain students out of the system, result in the cover-up of activities by certain other students, and actively demand that teachers and administrators not think or use common sense.
By all accounts, our school system is in crisis, producing students who do not know things, cannot apply what knowledge they have, cannot solve problems. The very idea that we are now demanding that their teachers suspend rational thought to enforce rules is mind-boggling. If we have adults in our public school system that cannot be trusted to apply rules in a fair manner, the solution is to get rid of them. Tenure or not.
The list of “contraband” makes this kind of policy more strange. Sure, we can all agree that kids shouldn’t bring weapons to school. But these days “weapon” can include a disposable plastic knife, a water pistol, and the chain on a girls purse. And high school students should be on notice not to help anyone move, not even a family member, because should an honest to goodness kitchen knife remain in the vehicle, expulsion in all likelihood will ensue. We can surely all agree that we don’t want little kids hauling around a bunch of medications — surely they should be administered by the school nurse. (Ha ha, the joke is on us. The “nursing shortage” combined with tight school budgets mean the school nurse is going the way of the dodo. If you are lucky, the school secretary knows first aid.) Unfortunately this underestimates the intelligence of young people with chronic conditions. An asthmatic who is having an attack needs his inhaler now, not after a breathless wheezing run to the office. Someone having an acute allergic reaction, or insulin shock, or an epileptic attack should not have to wait on lifesaving medication over a senseless rule. For that matter, common sense treatment of certain over-the-counter medications might be good for school numbers in the high school setting. Don’t you suppose most high school students should be intelligent and mature enough to follow the line of reasoning: “Gee, I have a headache. If I take an ibuprofen pill, I will feel better and be better able to pay attention in class. That might help me learn something.”
The biggest damage such policies do is in the matter of trust. Contrary to the rhetoric of such policies being used in a fair, uniform, unbiased fashion, the same games of favoritism and discrimination are now given respectable clothing. Do you honestly think the high school star football or basketball player has the rules applied in the same fashion as the school outcast? Honestly? I suggest you ask Patrick Dennehy’s teammates if that is true. Furthermore, the student who thinks he is doing a good thing by pointing out some serious issue often finds that he unleashes a frenzy of suspensions and expulsions. Gee, maybe grown-ups aren’t to be trusted after all.
Judges are starting to speak out against the zero-thinking policies they encounter in the law: mandatory sentencing; three strikes laws; federal cramdowns on state laws. Such rules don’t work in the real world, and truth be told they don’t work in the classroom either. It’s time for educators and parents to unite against this prohibition of thinking in our schools.