Saturday, April 19, 2008

Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

When I was a student at Marshfield High (my stay there was not chronologically identical to those of my classmates, but I was there) I ended up in in-house suspension on my birthday. In-house was was more or less a cross between jail and silent study. Teachers rotated through the day. You had to be escorted to the bathroom, just outside the classroom, and escorted back inside. It was long and boring.

But this was my birthday and my then-boyfriend (heya Timmy!! 'sup, man?) came to the window on one of the cooler teacher's shifts and asked if he could purleeeeaze give me a gift. (Timmy had traveled all the way from Duxbury, one town over, and was probably skipping school, since he went to Archbishop Williams, several towns north.) Teach relented; Timmy passed me a small box; I opened it to find a Hostess Cupcake with a candle and file in it.

Ok, it was a nail file. But the Jimmy Cagney movie (Google it, kids) reference was cute.

Teacher told us, point blank, that he was not amused and that he had a very low tolerance for nonsense.

Today he would be a paragon of patience, I guess. Because across the country school systems are adopting the ridiculous policy of "No Tolerance." That means, as most of us know, that if you break one of the big rules you're out, no questions, no second chances.

Really? This is a policy schools adopt? Errr... and brag about?

I was a teacher for a while, too. Personally, I think tolerance was among the most important lessons I had to deliver, even though the subjects assigned to me by the administration were English, Psychology, and Journalism. I even had a kid in one of my classes who had been moved from AP English to a lower level with many of the Special Ed and remedial kids. When I asked why, I was told it was punishment for bad behavior.

Yeah. I almost wigged, too. My last act before leaving was making sure he went back where he belonged the following year. Academic punishment for behavioral problems? (By the way, I never had a lick of trouble from him.)

Anyway, back to Zero Tolerance.

I find it fascinating that schools these days want to stick their noses into the private lives of their students-- perusing MySpace pages, alerting police to parties, telling them how to dress and wear their hair-- but have the nerve to institute a policy that completely cripples the ability of young adults to learn the skills they need to make those choices wisely for themselves.

Tolerance and acceptance and understanding work together. Tolerance allows us to bend and change so that we can make it to acceptance and growth. Tolerance is the magic bullet that lets a kid raised by racists learn to deal with people who scare him, then learn to let the fear go, then learn to reject the stupidity ingrained in him or her by others. Tolerance is the mechanism through which a Catholic kid works side by side with a Muslim kid without getting into religious arguments. It's not important that they disagree; they tolerate (and hopefully, after a lot of tolerance, embrace) one another.

Kids need tolerance. All of us do. A school system without it is a system crippled, mangled, and harmful.

And I can promise you there won't be any file-stuffed cupcakes! So what's the point, really?


  1. I guess I understand the predicament that schools have found themselves in is really a no win situation. For one thing, a lot of the disciplinary actions you wrote about should be handled by the parents...but aren't. Then you have the fact that drugs and weapons are a fact of life in so many communities. I have been lucky to raise my kids in a smaller town without a lot of the gang problems. And the school district, I feel, has never abused the zero tolerance mantra--but they do use it when necessary, and I'm glad they do.

    I think a lot of things changed after Columbine. And the school took a lot of heat for that incident.

    But a nail file in a cupcake is just cute.

  2. Wow, that is quite a pickle, as Gwen said. It sucks that teachers have to be parents to some students...but then again, teachers are not able to punish for some things, too.

    Still, yes, I think a little more tolerance would really help things go smoother all around. It's important not only to keep the peace, but to teach students themselves what good can come of it.

  3. "Tolerance is the mechanism through which a Catholic kid works side by side with a Muslim kid without getting into religious arguments."


    Thank you. I love my faith but I hate when people want me to argue with them about it...

  4. On one hand, I agree with you. On the other, when you consider that many schools struggle with violence and drug problems... it's a bit more understandable.

    I don't think Zero Tolerance should apply for breaking any rule, no matter how minor. Kids are going to be kids. They're going to rebel and challenge authority. That's normal behavior for teens.

    Drugs? Guns? Knives? Etc? Those aren't. Yes, there are kids that do that crap to be "cool" but there are others that are very sick individuals and need help. Quite frankly, the schools aren't prepared to give them the help they need. Their responsibility is to protect other students from becoming victims.

    In theory, Zero Tolerance has its merits. In practice, unfortunately, it is often abused. I remember reading about a kid who got either suspended or expelled under the Zero Tolerance policy because of a piece of fiction he wrote. FICTION. C'mon, people, use your freakin' brains here! Writing something of a disturbing nature is a warning sign, not something to kid a kid out of school over. Gyargh.

    I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Tolerance is important, but there are some things that are not deserving of tolerance. And sometimes, people need to learn not from tolerance, but from consequences.

  5. My kids school is one which bothers me for other reasons. They have no sense about protecting kids. I have No Tolerance for their negligence. They are so lax that I could easily pick up my kid and they would miss it. (in the middle of the day.) My son is bored senseless, but is so bright for an 8 yr old. They don't recognize it.

    But I digress, this is about the extremes that you mention. It will certainly hamper our children's attitudes in life and I think foster intolerance.

  6. I agree with Nonny. Some things don't deserve tolerance. Weapons, drugs, stalking, gangs, sexual harrassment. We grew up in an era where the addage 'kids will be kids' often meant some suffered atrocities in silence because it was considered just part of growing up. Bullies were never punished for the psychological damage they did to their peers. I have zero tolerance for that and I think schools should as well.

    Unfortunately, like all things schools do, it's taken to the extreme. When a child is suspended for writing fiction, or wearing a pentacle, or what have you, the schools smile and pat themselves on the back thinking they've upheld a new, higher standard.

    Zero tolerance only makes sense when it's tempered with intelligence, in you won't find much of that in the average public school system.

  7. What a brave and brilliant post. And while I do agree with Nonny's sentiment that "Tolerance is important, but there are some things that are not deserving of tolerance"--at least, to an extent--it's so tough to make that distinction (and who should be allowed to make it?). Even the truly awful things people do need to be viewed in context, and it seems to me that zero tolerance policies tend to fail in that regard A LOT. Life is not as black and white as zero tolerance implies, IMO. (And I think Nonny said that, too: "the answer lies somewhere in the middle). Anyway, mad props for this post and for sparking some very cool dialogue on the topic! XO

  8. Believe me when I say that this is a very delicate matter. Not that long ago one of the schools in the lower mainland had an incident involving a young girl who wished to express herself. She was granted permission to 'wear pink for no-bully day' with her uniform. Instead of a simple ribbon or pin, she elected to wear a pink t-shirt. It wasn't risque or anything but it went against their rules.

    Needless to say she was given a 'time out' and ultimately sent home. Talk about ridiculous, but its another example of how the no-tolerance policies are crippling our schools. She was trying to tell the world that she was against bullying and in the end was bullied by the system.

    Personally, I think they need to be a bit more tolerant. Which is why I love my son's school.

  9. Anonymous5:11 AM

    I'm sorry, you're saying No Tolerance policies are a bad thing because we should all listen and keep an open mind about others' viewpoints?

    Are you serious?

  10. The no tolerance think with guns can be a good thing but when you live in a backwoods southern town and daddy goes hunting every afternoon and the teen happens to have to borrow daddy's truck, guess who get's in trouble. Not daddy, but Jr.

    I also don't like the no child left behind policy that the schools have instituted. It takes the fight out of the kids. The schools are teaching kids that no one is better than another person, all are equal. But that's not true. Each person has unique abilities and one may be good in math another good in english. I don't like the lumping together that the no child left behind and the no tolerance brings. A child who brings an asprin to school is expelled just like a child who brings cocaine. Kids who bring a butter knife get the boot just like kids who bring a weapon that they intend to use for harm. At a local elementary, boys are not allowed to play any war/gun/capture/army games. They can't talk about guns, they can't play games where guns might be used. They can't talk about the hunting trip that grandpa took them on or show pictures of the event. Some of the boys now think that the army is full of bad men because it's bad to use guns. Many of the boys who wanted to be police men or warriors in the military now say that they can't be that because good boys don't use guns and the military and police use guns so they can't do that. Personally, I think that this situation is setting up the next big school shooting event. Some boy is going to be told he's bad because he likes guns and will take up that mantra. He'll think he's bad so why not be real bad. I hope that doesn't happen, but the restriction/facination cycle has begun.

    One of my friends in a position to hire college recruits told me that some college graduates are having their parents come in to negotiate salary. That's wrong. The outside world isn't like school. Children need to learn how to operate in the real world because once you get out of school you are supposed to be a functioning member of society, not someone who has to have your mommy tell your boss what to pay you.

  11. Thing is, there is room for extreme measures in policies that also include tolerance. I'm certainly not advocating tolerance of all behavior. I'm advocating common sense.
    Rigid rules that force us to bounce a kid for a first time offense of something like smoking in the bathroom along with the giving the same treatment to a kid who brings a gun to school are absurd.
    Bounce the extremes, of course. Offering nothing else as an alternative teaches nothing but rigid thinking.
    And yes, that's *ME* saying that... an award winning former teacher who still gets email from students I haven't taught in years!
    The nerve, I tell you... LOL

  12. Anonymous8:03 PM

    Please change the comparison....smoking and guns kill people! Never lost anyone from cancer? And it all started in a bathroom where 'tolerance' should have happened? Sorry, not feeling the 'sense' this was supposed to make.

  13. Anonymous9:01 PM

    I think with most everything certain people go to the extreme. which seems to be what has happened in your case. Our No Tolerance works more like the three strike system in California. We're not talking the hair not cut right or a skirt too short, we are talking disruptive behavior. I'm sorry if a child continues to disrupt the class no matter the consequences they have received, they need to be removed. My kid is there to learn. Now this only applies to our Charter and Privates schools. Public-well you can get away with so much more, one reason I don't want my kids in public school.

  14. I think things like that are ridiculous too.

    At my high school (Bonner) They had a policy that said teachers were to close and lock their doors when the bell rings the last time (it rang twice)and any student that was even a minute late got locked out and had to go all the way back to the office to get a slip saying they got a detention for tardiness and could attend the class. You get three detentions a semester (9 weeks). The first detention was 10 mins, the second 20 and the third was half an hour, after your third you got suspended for however many days then if you got in trouble again you could possibly be expelled. Most teachers would also make you take a detention if you had to leave class for any reason, including going to the bathroom. Which made it extremely hard for us girls considering our monthly dilema.

    One time I remember well was the time I was on mine and had to use the "facilities" as the teacher said. He wouldn't let me go without giving me a detention and I had already had my first two and couldn't stay after for half an hour because I had to babysit my niece, I told him that and he was a total jerk, he was sexist anyway. So I proceeded to give him HIS options. I told him he could let me go wihtout detention, I'd go without permission and take it up with the boards, or I'd stay in class and then explain to my mother why she has to buy me a new pair of 40 dollar jeans because my teacher wouldn't let me go change. He had already had a "conference" with my mother before and didn't like it, so I got to go to the bathroom free for the rest of the week. It was awesome and everybody in school was talking about it. I was a celebrity, lol. Bonner is a pretty big high school, at least 300 students.

  15. Jaded, good for you!! I remember when I was in high school, I had a similar situation--it was that time of the month, and the substitute warned us that he didn't allow bathroom breaks at all.

    Well, I couldn't wait, so I went over and whispered in his ear that I had a female emergency and had to go. He made a huge fuss in front of the whole class about it, saying he knew girls faked that kind of thing all the time to get out of class.

    I went back and sat down, but knew I wasn't going to make it, so I just got up and left. He yelled at me while I was going, but I went anyway.

    I stayed out the rest of the class period because I was so upset. I found out later that day that he'd grilled the entire class to find out what my name was. Not one person in there told him.

    Now that's stickin' it to the man! YAY for really helped me feel better about what happened, because I didn't do anything wrong.

  16. I personally have issues with zero tolerance when a kindergartener is caught with a pair of kitchen scissors because he needed a pair of scissors in class. Or a mom sends a butter knife to school in the lunch box to help her kid with braces eat an apple better, but she didn't want to send the apple cut because it would turn brown. That makes no sense to me whatsoever.

    Kids are kids. They're gonna smoke. They shouldn't do it at school, but they will. Should they be suspended? Yes. And if it were my kid who got busted, his ass would be "volunteering" in a cancer ward, seeing up close and personal what smoking can do to you. The school should police the events at the school, they should not be parenting my child.

    Unfortunately, many kids don't have parents that take an active role in the discipline or life lessons of their children, and the schools are trying to fill that gap. They need to stick to teaching. Yes, they need to deal with the big issues like REAL weapons at school, but I agree, they need to focus more on teaching kids to be tolerant and accepting and encouraging them to learn from their mistakes. Cutting them to the quick for a first time offense doesn't do anyone any favors.

    Also, punishing a kid academically, is just WRONG and if I had been that kid's parent, I would've raised such a stink, there would still be vapors.

    great post, Chrissy. Sorry it took me so long to get here. :)

  17. Wow, Jaded, at least you got some street cred!

    Thanks for posting. I hated some of those policies so much as a teacher that I simply refused to take anything to the administration. I guess if I'd had a kid brandish a weapon...

    But the stupid stuff? I just dealt with on my own. Detentions with me. And you know... wigging out if a kid can't get a ride on a specific day?

    You can't teach a teen to be more like an adult if you can't act like one.

    I had a poster on my classroom wall that I still have, in my study, with Charles Robison's words: