Monday, October 12, 2009

Zero Tolerance vs. Common Sense

In 2002, I wrote a Starr Points column called "Stop Tolerating Zero Tolerance," in which I exhorted educators to replace zero tolerance with common sense and "keep our children safe -- safe from weapons, safe from violence, and safe from zero-tolerance policies that damage more children than the weapons they purport to protect them from."

Last summer, I moved that seven-year-old column to my "Once-Upon-a-Time Commentary" archive, thinking it was a topic whose relevance had passed. Educators, I thought, had learned the lesson that zero tolerance has no place in an elementary school. I was wrong.

Yesterday's New York Times published a story about a Delaware first-grader who brought to his elementary school a treasured Cub Scout eating utensil. Apparently, he loved his new knife-fork-spoon tool so much, he wanted to eat lunch with it. For that crime, he was immediately suspended and has been "sentenced" to 45 days -- 9 long weeks -- in the district's reform school.

C'mon, Delaware. What are you thinking? That a six-year-old with a spork is equivalent to a 16-year-old with a Glock? That if you let off the six-year-old spork wielder, you have to ignore the 10-year-old with a jack knife? That you don't know where to draw the line so you draw it at a six-year-old Cub Scout? Or did you just forget that the job of educators is to teach?

Shame on you.

As educators, we know -- or we should know -- that children are not just short adults. We know that a six-year old does not have the cognitive ability of a 40-year-old (unless, apparently, that 40-year-old is a school admnistrator in Delaware), or even that of a 10-year-old. We know that a six-year-old can think logically, but have trouble with abstract concepts. We know that a six-year-old can think inductively, but not deductively. We know that six-year-olds who are encouraged and commended by parents and teachers develop a feeling of competence and confidence; and that those who are not, do not. We know that -- for better or for worse -- a six-year-old is a child, dependent on the wisdom and judgement of the adults responsible for him.

Educators are not cops. We are not prison wardens. We are not airport baggage inspectors or military generals charged simply with keeping the peace for a specific number of hours or days or months. We have a higher calling. We are teachers, charged with shaping the future; with teaching and guiding and leading by example the next generation. Do we want to teach tomorrow's adults to hide behind CYA or pass-the-buck zero tolerance laws -- or do we want to teach them to think?

If there's anyone out there -- in Delaware or elsewhere -- who doesn't have the common sense and the courage to be an educator, it's time to find another line of work.

Story Update: Last night, the Christina School Board "voted unanimously to reduce the punishment for kindergartners and first-graders who take weapons to school or commit violent offenses to a suspension ranging from three to five days." So Zachary can return to school today. One can only hope that the administrator who mandated the original punishment returns to school as well -- for some much-needed professsional development.

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