Friday, July 13, 2007

Zero What?

Last week's Northwest Explorer provided front page space for an article about Tyler Robbins. Tyler is the student that picked up a small pocket knife he found in the street on his way to school with the intent of giving it to the principal. According to the article, he pulled it out of his pocket before taking it to the principal and was caught by a staff member who promptly marched him to the principal's office where he was suspended for breaking the zero tolerance rule for knives. He wasn't suspended for waving the knife around irresponsibly, nor was he caught bullying or threatening someone. He simply pulled it out of his pocket.

Perhaps knives have been used irresponsibly, or threateningly, in this particular school. If so, I could understand the need for a policy cracking down on the inappropriate use of this little tool in the interest of student safety. But, instead of creating a sensible policy to address the problem, the district banned the tool entirely.

In the case of Tyler, when he came upon the knife, he had a couple of options. He could have left it there allowing the possibility that a less responsible, or younger, child would pick it up and hurt someone, a very likely scenario given the hundreds of children passing that way on their way to school. He could have left it there and reported it—a very impotent choice given the number of students passing by. Or, he could have picked it up and taken it to someone in authority who would know what to do with it. Of course, he could have taken it to school with the intent to do harm to someone else, but there is no evidence to suggest this was the case. So, we have to assume that Tyler was at least responsible enough to pick it up. (Remember, this is not a loaded AK-47).

Unfortunately for Tyler, instead of being taught a positive lesson about his decision to pick up the knife in the interest of protecting others, and doing the right thing with it by taking it to the prinicipal, he was punished and told that, in this case, doing the right thing was the wrong thing. In fact, the message was that he should have simply left the knife there despite the risks.

I am not at all against a policy to protect students when it seems necessary to do so. I do have a problem with "zero tolerance" policies that equate to zero thinking or zero common sense. Our principals are educated and intelligent enough to tell whether or not a child is creating a safety problem by bringing a pocket knife into the school, and deal with it appropriately. Likewise, they can tell the difference between shooting a real gun versus shooting a squirt gun, or accidentally falling on someone versus intentionally hitting them.

Those who advocate an either/or policy suggest either it has to be "anything goes" with no safeguards, or everyone has to be punished under any circumstance if seen with anything resembling the banned implement. The problem with this is that they are abdicating to a mere policy the responsibility of discerning and making tough decisions. And what does that teach the kids? It certainly doesn't teach responsibility and moral courage. And it doesn't help the kids to develop anything but disrespect for the authority that caused the resulting injustices, like Tylers. I think we can do better than that. And I think our school administrators should be allowed to do better than that. Common sense could go a long way in the educations of our children.

1 comment:

Sirocco said...

I agree -- you see this a lot in other instances similar to Tyler's, or in zero tolerance sexual harassment (like some story I saw last year where some young boy, 8 maybe, was suspended for hugging a classmate).

I am sure these "zero tolerance" policies have come about because school officials are fed up with dealing with jerk parents, whom when their kid brings a machete to school and threatens everyone he sees with it, can't understand why little Johnnie got suspended for his actions.

There is also always the fear that, maybe next month, Tyler shows up with a knife and stabs a classmate -- in which case the fact they did nothing "serious" about it the first time he showed up with one will be used to bludgeon the school (and district and teachers and administrators) in the ensuing lawsuit.

None of which is sufficient ... sometimes common sense just needs to be applied.