Four boys, best friends, walk through a school cafeteria carrying their lunch trays. One of them is dared to pour water on another friend already seated and eating. Fast forward: Water down the back leads to chasing, pushing and several trays of spilled food. In that moment, there are two choices for a middle school principal: call the pranksters into his office. Or call the school resource officer, escalating the incident from a silly, ill-thought dare to a disciplinary action.
My son's assistant principal chose door number one. He recognized the stunt as goofy teens stumbling and tripping their way from elementary to high school, talked to the boys about impulse control, and assigned them the humiliating and ego-deflating task of cleaning the cafeteria tables for one week. In other words, he had the discretion to dish out an appropriate punishment to meet the offense.
This is how all schools should work. But zero tolerance policies remove discretion from school officials, and too many teens and kids much younger than my son are receiving harsh penalties for mischievous but far from malicious behavior.
Zero tolerance has been around since the 1980s, with the theory that mandated, punitive discipline for select offenses would pay off with safer schools. But its popularity has less to do with its effects than its get-tough image. There is little data to prove the effectiveness of zero tolerance policies, and it has proven to be "a minefield of unintended consequences."
Over the years, the list of transgressions has expanded from guns, drugs and fights to "soft offenses" like disrespect, insubordination, even four-year-olds' temper tantrums. The result is school districts across the country where suspensions and expulsions are the penalty for minor infractions like talking back, with exclusionary discipline applied disproportionately to minority students.
UCLA's Civil Rights Project uncovered a staggering trend after studying data from over 26,000 middle and high schools: more than 2 million secondary school students—one in nine—are suspended every year, a majority for violating minor school rules. This can lead students to stay back a grade, drop out of school, or get in trouble with the law.
To bring some sanity to a broken system, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder have announced new discipline guidelines calling on schools to "abandon…overly zealous discipline policies that send students to court instead of the principal's office." The new federal guidance intends to balance school safety with the shocking overuse of suspension, expulsion or arrest and address a vicious pattern: black students, especially boys, bearing the brunt of these policies.
It represents a common-sense approach to a systemic problem. Yet in typical hyperbolic fashion, some accused the Administration's new guidelines of undermining discipline, setting up a dystopia where "punishing some innocent students could turn out to be very good policy." Of course, it is the ultimate irony that education reformers who push school vouchers as an equal opportunity to a quality education would also endorse "one strike and you're out" policies pushing black and Hispanic students out of school and into the streets. These self-professed champions of education equality willfully ignore the inequity of a tussle over a note in class, then handcuffs.
Too many of today's minority students will be tomorrow's prisoners, sucked up into America's criminal justice system. How long will we allow black and Hispanic children to be punished more harshly than white children for the same offenses? How long will we continue to let schools be the pipeline to prison for black and Hispanic youth? Being a black male means you're a suspect—whether you're shopping for a belt or waiting for a bus. Does the racial profiling start in our schools? These are questions that deserve serious thought and serious discussion by teachers and school administrators.
Middle school is that awkward stage of life when having a zit is equivalent to Armageddon and parents wonder whether their children have been possessed by aliens. The students don't exhibit an abundance of reason. Thankfully in my son's case, when faced with a discipline issue, the adult did not follow the kids' example. As has been said before by education leaders, "It is adult behavior that has to change."
African-American student at school image via Shutterstock.