Monday, August 14, 2006

Zero Tolerance, Suspensions, and Expulsions

USA Today has an article by Marian Elias titled "At schools, less tolerance for 'no tolerance'."
"Zero tolerance" discipline policies that are enforced widely in U.S. schools are backfiring: They may be promoting misbehavior and making students feel more anxious, the American Psychological Association (APA) said Wednesday.

The group called for more flexibility and common sense in applying the policies, reserving zero tolerance for the most serious threats to school safety.

Zero-tolerance policies spread in the 1990s as a tool to fight drug use and violence on campuses. Schools often suspend or expel students for having weapons or drugs, which can include over-the-counter medicine, says educational psychologist Cecil Reynolds of Texas A&M University. Verbal threats, fighting or sexual harassment also can get kids booted, he says. "There are cases such as the kindergarten boy who hugged two classmates. His teacher reported him for sexual harassment, and he was suspended."

"The 'one-size-fits-all' approach isn't working. Bringing aspirin to school is not the same as bringing cocaine. A plastic knife isn't the same as a handgun," Reynolds says.

Principals who want to be flexible "may be caught in a catch-22," says Richard Flanary of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. If school boards set rigid policies, principals who defy them risk losing their jobs. "Then they're bashed in the press for overreacting to kids' misbehavior."

I understand the purpose of "no tolerance," but anytime we try to handle situations by setting up hard and fast policies we get ourselves into trouble, as the examples given in this article point out. We have become so afraid that someone is going to make a decision that we don't like that we feel like we have to lock them into something. Although bad decisions will happen from time to time, I really think we can do a lot better by hiring good people (teachers and principals) and allowing them to use their common sense to make decisions.

The APA also had this to say about suspension and expulsion rates in schools.

Kids feel less safe and perform worse academically in schools with high suspension or expulsion rates, even taking into account students' income levels, the association's report says. Also, students' higher suspension rates predict higher rates of future misbehavior and school failure compared with classmates who weren't suspended for similar misdeeds, Reynolds says.

This paragraph implies that suspending or expelling misbehaving students is generally a bad thing. I think that is a ridiculous conclusion. Of course, kids feel less safe in schools with high suspension and expulsion rates. People who live in high-crime areas also feel less safe, but it's not because too many criminals are being sent to jail; it's because there's a lot of crime.

And regarding the differences between kids who were and were not suspended for similar misdeeds, the kids who were suspended had probably been more trouble before. Suspension is usually not the first action that a principal takes when dealing with a misbehaving student. The incident that draws the suspension is frequently the straw that broke the camel's back.

Although I thoroughly agree with this article's point that principals need to be given more discretion in dealing with student misbehavior, I can't swallow any argument that discipline in schools is too strict and that we need to be more tolerant. Puh-lease!


Blogger Deb S. said...

Excellent article. Thanks for the heads up.

Dennis when it comes to the comments on suspension and expulsion, I humbly submit that you may be missing the point.

I enrolled one of my children in a school district with an excellent academic reputation. It's an affluent suburban district.

But there was a very serious problem there that the district to this day has failed to adequately address. The suspension and expulsion rate of students of color was twice that of their white peers for the same infractions. The district's own climate surveys revealed that students of color, as a group, were unhappy, anxious and felt less safe.

I think we'd be treading on very dangerous ground if we say that students of color are more prone to bad behavior than other students. The fact of the matter is that students of color felt that they couldn't be themselves.

How can we expect students to have a good high school experience in this type of environment? It is not a safe, nurturing environment for this particular group of students.

This district is not alone, and high suspension and expulsion rates are certainly not limited to affluent, predominantly white school districts. It's so often easier to blame the students when, at times, the school needs to rethink some of it policies and re-examine what sort of climate it is fostering.

Mind you, I'm not letting students off the hook. I'm just saying that adults (educators and parents) need to take responsibility along with the students.

I realize that schools have to deal with many students who are badly behaved - and that these students, especially if there are several of them, can disrupt a classroom.

However, if any school has a high suspension and expulsion rate, take a look at the students affected. Chances are that the same group of students has a higher dropout rate. Academic ability often has nothing to do with it. And I don't doubt that these same students end up in the legal system. But it's not always by choice, particularly for Hispanic and black students.

You've heard of DWB - driving while black? A lot of kids deal with WWB - walking while black. They get pulled over by cops in a white neighborhood in which they live just because of the color of their skin.

My godson, who is very bright according to his test scores, was one of those students in an affluent suburban school district with high suspension rates for students of color. He was a resident student, not bussed in from the city. I can't tell you how many times he was pulled over by cops in his own neighborhood.

I became outraged when the school resource officer called police and had my godson arrested for - guess what - trespassing! My godson was not suspended at the time of the "transgression."

The officer wrote a six-page police report of garbage. Ultimately, the case was dismissed after I talked with the prosecutor, but I can't tell you the anguish my godson went through.

A few years ago, my younger child's school district got some really bad press after the daughter of a former football player (who is black) was verbally harassed by a white male student on the school bus. She was the only black student on the bus. The white student was much older than she. In the harassing comment, the student used the N word. The white student's punishment was expulsion from the bus for the remainder of the school year.

What bothered me here, besides the discipline, is that the school did no follow-up with either student (i.e. counseling) to make sure that the student understood why his behavior was inappropriate and to make sure that the student who was victimized felt OK after the incident.

(By the way, this incident never would have made it to the media had the superintendent simply returned the father's phone calls, requesting a meeting. The superintendent, by his own admission to me, said his only contact with the family was by sending them certified letters.)

Afterwards, the district put together a community engagement team to review discipline and diversity issues. I was on that team, and the process took a year. At the end of the process, the team made recommendations to the school board on some policy changes.

I know my comment is long, but my point is this: When it comes to issues of discipline, there are a lot of variables. The psychological impact should not be overlooked.

By the way, as a result of what went on in the school district of one of my children, I had to place my child in counseling. I ultimately pulled my child out of the district.

Several of my child's friends - and my godson - left the school district that same year because, they said, they couldn't take it anymore.

8/14/2006 11:09 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Deb, I know better than to argue with you about what goes on in urban schools. And when the situation is one in which black kids are being suspended and white kids aren't, I'm not going to try to defend that. If I tried, I'd end up with my foot so far into my mouth that I might never be able to get it out again.

One thing that came to my mind when I did this post was a report I saw on ABC news a few years ago about suspensions. There were two nice looking, well dressed, young college people in their fashionable office who were arguing against suspending students. Then they interviewed a haggard looking, black, female principal of an inner-city middle school in her dumpy office , and they asked her why she suspended kids. She said they were trying to provide a safer environments for their kids. There is no question that the two college people looked more impressive in that story, but the only person who had ever had to deal with disruptive students was that principal.

8/14/2006 5:32 PM  
Blogger Deb S. said...

Dennis, interesting point. The APA's comments, obviously, don't don't restrict themselves to color.

I vividly remember a hazing incident in suburban Chicago a few years ago. It involved a high school girls' powder puff game. The junior girls who were pledging the sorority had garbage, feces, paint and other debris dumped on them as other people cheered. The incident was caught on videotape.

When initially interviewed, the superintendent said the school wasn't liable because the game took place off school property. The superintendent's whole manner was nonchalant. Contrast that with the kids who were injured, physically or pyschologically.

Then there is the comment from an onlooker, a female student, who said emphatically, "So what if somebody's head gets cracked open?"

Of course, this whole story made national news, and the school district got a black eye. Parents and students were arrested - parents for allowing the students to drink alcohol, the kids for assault. All of these kids were white.

My point is this: Don't underestimate the psychological effects of school climate on children, period. Race, of course, does play a factor in education as it does in everything else - whether it be in New York City or Warroad, MN. But I don't get caught up in that. I strive to look at an issue from various points of view - that of the teacher, the student and the school administrator.

Thanks for taking the time to respond.

8/15/2006 1:57 PM  
Blogger Deb S. said...

I'm going to let you in on a secret. The reason I'm not in a classroom today is that I have a low tolerance for badly behaved children. I can handle small groups of kids with no problem, and I often do. But I know my limitations.

I have a lot more patience now than I did in my 20s. I've also learned a lot by talking to principals, school safety officials, guidance professionals and keeping up on research/best practices. Needless to say, my own experiences have taught me a lot.

Plus, the good thing about working as an education reporter and a public education advocate is that you get to see a lot and talk to people at all levels in education, including the students themselves.

I have a great deal of respect for teachers, like my colleagues here, who are on the front lines every day.

8/15/2006 2:08 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thanks for your comments, Deb, and wish me luck! I'm leaving for the Twin Cities tomorrow to do a presentation for the Minnesota School Boards Association on Thursday. I just hope the Power Point projector doesn't let me down. I DO NOT TRUST THAT THING!!! Nothing is worse than being all set to go, looking up at the screen, and seeing, "No signal." A high-tech wizzard I am not!

8/15/2006 6:58 PM  
Blogger Deb S. said...

Let us know how the presentation went. Speaking before the MSBA is a big deal. I'm sure you'll do just fine.

8/16/2006 5:39 AM  

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