Zero Tolerance, Zero Intelligence

Philadelphia Inquirer 05-13-2003

ZerotoleranceZero Tolerance Zero Intelligence
By Arielle Emmett
NETHER PROVIDENCE – About a month ago my 13 year-old son took a swing at a sixth grader who yelled obscenities at him. The middle school dean left a message on my voice mail indicating the punishment was an out-of-school suspension for three days, which was later reduced to two because I begged the principal to keep my son in school.

Otherwise he would sit home alone, playing video games while I had to work.

A few days later, a seventh-grade neighbor in my son’s class “pantsed” her best friend – pulling down her underpants in front of others on school grounds. The punishment was a five-day, out-of-school suspension.

At Strath Haven High School, two girls got into a knock-down, drag-out, fists-and-kicking fight in class. Both girls got a one-day suspension for a “first offense,” according to school administrators, even though one of the girls’ teeth were knocked loose.

Alarmed by these incidents, and because the punishments seem so arbitrary, I did some investigating.

Violence is not only rising in our schools – there were more than 37,000 incidents of violence and weapons possession in Pennsylvania schools in 2001, according to state reports – but so is our level of belligerence toward even minor misbehaviors.

Pennsylvania school districts are clamping down so hard on discipline that it’s hard to tell the difference between “zero tolerance” and “zero intelligence.”

In 2001, 30,000 Pennsylvania kids got out-of-school suspensions, an increase of 14.1 percent over the previous year.

We kick kids out of school for playing pranks, for food fights, for cutting classes, for threatening to “kill someone,” whether that means a momentary, thoughtless innuendo or a serious intent to harm.

We kick kids out for defending themselves against bullies. In other instances, we turn a blind eye to real threats and let a situation become explosive.

Discernment isn’t happening in this process.

Too few schools have capacity or staffing to support in-school suspension programs, where learning goes on in a separate classroom or library space.

Instead, many school districts are banishing kids to other schools, suspending them for days, weeks, or months on end, or expelling them altogether with no one to watch over or counsel them.

What happens when these problems are ignored?

Consider Rodney (not his real name), a 14-year-old boy who was my son’s best and beloved friend. Rodney, who lives in a Delaware County project with his mother, was suspended for fighting at the Ridley schools this winter. He now faces charges of burglary, grand theft, and breaking and entering a home – our home.

With nothing to do, his mother having withdrawn him from school, Rodney and his cousin broke in our house during school hours, stealing a stash of birthday gifts, boy’s clothes, jewelry and cash.

At first, we could not believe it. But Rodney was caught red-handed by detectives, and will face us shortly in court.

What would have happened if he had been kept in school and gotten some help?

I’m convinced the prognosis would be much better than it is today.

Except for the most violent or mentally deranged children who put themselves and others directly at risk, schools should not simply wash their hands of troublemakers.

The vast majority of discipline problems can be handled in school. Parents ought to be enlisted to determine consequences.

Kids need guided, disciplined learning in a safe environment – preferably with a fully qualified teacher and, if necessary, a beefy disciplinarian.

Further, districts should implement more programs to teach conflict-resolution skills, self-defense, and provide opportunities for discipline through mandatory community or in-school service projects.

These kinds of programs, if well-run, can go a long way toward reminding everyone what it takes to channel kids’ energy and anger constructively.

The Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, which has a comparatively low incidence of out-of-school suspensions per year – less than 50, according to school officials – is now considering a budget item that would make in-school suspensions with guided learning mandatory, except for violent offenders and kids deemed at “high risk” of harming themselves or others.

The district is also implementing a “Second Step” conflict resolution program as part of a regular middle school curriculum.

These are steps in the right direction. Rather than throw 50-odd disciplinary problems out of school each year, the district plans to hire an “on-call” substitute teacher to run an in-school learning program for suspended students as needed. The budgeting required is relatively modest.

I hope this measure will pass a school board vote on June 23. School districts throughout the state should watch the results unfold and, if those results are positive, take similar steps to keep our kids in school.

>Arielle Emmett is a science journalist and screenwriter in Wallingford. She has two children in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District.Zerotolerance

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