Thursday, January 26, 2006

Zero Tolerance

The word from my sister today: My nephew (Little A, although he's not so little anymore) might get suspended from school.

I only know what my sister told me. She only knows what Little A tells her and what the folks from the school told her (and what The Jackass, my former brother-in-law, tells her). Obviously, some of this might be misinterpreted, confused, distorted, or a lie.

That said, here are the basics as I know them:
Little A is in one of the school bathrooms. He turns to leave and bumps into another kid. The Other Kid pushes Little A. From the sound of it neither kid was hurt. Little A's friend sees what happens and leaves to get a hall monitor. The hall monitor gets the initial story and sends them both to someone's office. The school has a zero tolerance policy for violence and aggressive behavior. The Jackass ex-B-I-L was called in. When asked what to do if you get pushed the Other Kid said (words to the effect of), "Stand up for yourself and push back," while Little A says, "Walk away".

The principal will make a decision tomorrow I guess... but if there's a zero tolerance policy then they both get punished.

Now, technically my nephew is correct... at least that should be what you want to do. However, some circumstances call for different responses... like the response the Other Kid stated.

I bet this thing stems from assumptions by both kids. Fine. I'm not really that bent out of shape over both kids getting punished... but if they get suspended I'm going to flip. Make 'em clean a bathroom, pick up garbage out in the yard, run laps, anything sensible... just not suspension.

Even if my nephew turns out to be the good kid and the Other Kid is a rotten little jackass I don't see how the Other Kid could be suspended. They are not even in the double-digit age bracket for eff's sake!

The Kicker:
My sister defends the zero tolerance policy. Quickly, I began to explain how wrong-headed such policies are. I even stated that they increase the incidents of trouble, punish some kids for doing the right thing, and encourage kids to become cowards. She didn't want to hear that.

  • Increasing Incidents of Violence: Let's say the zero tolerance policy does not serve as a deterrent. (The types of folks who seem to support such policies say similar things about gun ownership and the death penalty... let's run with that assumption.) Now you've turned pushing matches, scenes where kids wave clenched fists in the air, and little kids scuffling on the ground into the same category as beating a kid up, kids ganging up on one little guy, kicking a kid in the face, etc. “Violence is violence.” If you don't measure a little shoving between kids who like Pokemon cards differently than a kid who goes after someone with a baseball bat you are not only nuts you are blowing the shoving out of proportion.
  • Punish the Good Kids: Some fighting in school is good. "How's that?" I hear you (and my sister) ask. One of the sevies (as they were called when I was in seventh grade) is cornered by a group of ninth grade kids. Maybe they don't plan on hurting the kid really bad, but they definitely want to scare him, shake him up, and get a couple of shots in on him. Another kid sees this and stands up to these bullies... maybe he's another sevy, maybe he's in ninth grade, maybe he's a high school kid walking through the neighborhood. This little hero pulls one of the bullies back and tells them all to knock it off. Maybe the little hero even gets in a punch to show he's serious. (Perhaps he's actually bluffing, but that's not the point.) Zero tolerance policies would give our Little Hero a punishment... although he stopped or even prevented trouble.
  • Encourage Cowardice: Let's roll with the example I just used with our Little Hero and say he got suspended from school for at least one day. He's got a friend who walks through the same school grounds or goes to the same school as The Sevy. He spots the bullies pulling the same stunt on a different kid... but our Little Hero's friend decides he's not willing to risk getting suspended. This Different Kid gets intimidated and possibly ruffed up... thanks to the zero tolerance policy intimidating the friend of our Little Hero.

Look, I'm willing to teach my nephew and (when the time comes) my son that sometimes you ought to take the punishment if you know what you're doing is right. That's a double dose of responsibility. Sometimes you've got to step up to a bully... maybe for your own self respect, maybe to help another person, maybe both. If the circumstances are dire that's worth getting suspended for (not to mention a couple of shots in the chops).

To be a geek I'll use a Spider-Man reference. Spider-Man constantly gets grief from having a secret life as a super hero and it often brings plenty of trouble in his life as Peter Parker... that doesn't stop him from helping the good folks of New York City. He'd rather take a beating or miss a chemistry test or even disappoint Mary Jane (hubba-hubba) than fail to do the right thing.

In the meanwhile, can't the schools stop worrying about whether they'll get sued and 1) bring back some basic discipline, 2) let kids handle some of their own matters, and 3) don't severely punish a kid for (rightly or wrongly) pushing back at another kid.


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