Sunday, January 12, 2014

Zero to One Hundred -- Tolerance in the Extreme Won't Work

Zero tolerance used to be the rage in schools – no leeway, no ‘yes but.’ The same punishment for a known druggie who brings marijuana to school as the honor student who brings cough medicine. Zero tolerance never works. It traps innocent kids, it forces unintended consequences, and it does not give educators tools to educate. We are forced into knee-jerk reactions without being able to make judgment calls.

Just as zero tolerance is a bad idea, so is Sally Kern’s ‘Common Sense’ bill, that seems to be a ‘One Hundred Tolerance,’ an unlimited tolerance of kids pretending to have weapons at school. It is just as foolish as earlier attempts to legislate the nuanced relationship between teachers and students. More unintended consequences will follow…and they could be much more serious than someone bringing cold pills to school.
My original post about Representative Kern’s bill had a light tone – I really couldn’t take a pastry law very seriously. It just seemed so silly…a law about biting Pop Tarts into shapes?

 In response to ONE incident a half-a-continent away in Maryland, Sally Kern also inserted language that will prohibit any bullying of kids who wear clothes supporting the Second Amendment. I’m not sure whose common sense is driving this move, but I’ve spent 39 years in schools, and I’ve never seen a problem that she seems bent on correcting. No child has ever been suspended for ‘brandishing a pastry,’ or for wearing appropriate clothing extolling the Constitution…I HAVE seen some inappropriate clothing, and we all have no problem distinguishing what is and is not against common decency.  I know of several students who were in possession of weapons at school. No one’s been suspended for making weapon sounds, or playing ‘army’ on the playground.

The incident in Maryland was weeks after Newtown. I hope the little boy who’s the center of this story knew nothing about the shooting. I hope his parents shielded him from the news. But his teachers were understandably on edge, and it sounds like everyone responded badly. Nothing I’ve heard would lead me to support the school’s actions…even though I understand their fears. As educators, they were charged with making the best decision for that child, and helping him make good decisions. They failed all around.

The conversations we’ve been having about my original post have deepened my understanding, and have brought new concerns to the front. It seems like common sense is much more complicated than Sally Kern and I first imagined. I have permission to share my friends’ words while keeping their names private.

One friend is worried about special education students who have been unfairly targeted by teachers and administrators, sending students home who barely understand the reasons they’re being punished. I hope these are isolated instances, like the Maryland case. If this is happening, parents must advocate for their children, and pursue schools’ actions with district-level administrators. This is not my experience, but I must honor and respect others’ experiences. And we must protect our most vulnerable students from this kind of action.

Other friends have taught in high poverty schools, where students see gang activity. My friends’ responses to their students playing ‘gun’ with pencils or their fingers are just what I would hope an educator’s response would be – redirection, explanation of what’s ok and not ok at school. There are sometimes classroom consequences. If these strategies fail, administrators may be brought in.

One friend related a story about a four-year-old student bringing a pellet gun to school…her question: “Let’s see, is a pellet gun a ‘toy’ gun? Good question. Representative Kern? Zero or one hundred?

Another friend who has taught elementary special education said she knows making play-gun sounds and actions is often attention-seeking behavior, or ways to let off steam – she also sees anger issues. She knows better communication and partnerships with parents will go a long way toward a positive, common sense outcome for all. She also suggests more funding for mental health issues in children and families would be a common sense solution to many problems.

Several of us have expressed concern about students at the secondary level who are bigger than the elementary student whose unfortunate experience started this discussion. What does a teacher do if a fully-grown, angry student points a finger at the teacher or others in class and pulls an imaginary trigger? Don’t think that could happen? I’m going to quote a friend:

“I have been on the receiving end of a student using ‘handgun’ motions and noises toward me while I was teaching. The action was intended to be threatening, and I truly felt intimidated and targeted…I felt the student’s action was a liability since we are now so quick to intervene in potential school shooting plots…Be it a pastry or drawing, no one should ever be on the receiving end of targeted gun practice. And trust me, I can lighten up and take a joke, but it was one of the worst teaching scenarios I have ever encountered…This law does not consider the teachers…I would be at a loss and would still have felt threatened if this was law now. People often forget that teachers are…on the receiving end of bullying as well with teenagers who are often unable to make reasonable choices and think through consequences.”

What strikes me about this educator's words, is the last statement. She’s still thinking like a teacher, finding a way to help students, even ones who threaten him, her classroom, and other students. She's looking for ways to do the right thing for all her students, even as she's being intimidated.

If this bill becomes law, what will happen in these situations? Will One Hundred tolerance, total tolerance, give a bully the right to destroy the climate of the class, defy the teacher, threaten him and other students? I see nothing in this ‘common-sense’ bill that would give educators any power to assess consequences and keep their classrooms safe.

Again from my friend: “I’m sure if Kern was speaking in a large crowd and someone made gun motions and noises toward her, she would feel the way I did – threatened…this is not a responsible bill. It is bullying…I think the law should be replaced with a law that protects teachers from bullying. This is an issue I have dealt with more and more…it seems to be a silent epidemic.”

If Kern’s ‘common sense’ bill becomes law, common sense will be thrown out the window. Educator judgments will be useless. Classroom climate will be destroyed. Students with serious mental health or anger issues, students wanting revenge for a bad grade, will be given license to bully at will.

So, whom do I trust with decisions about student behavior? The trained, experienced educators or the legislator who escaped teaching? Teachers who know their students and understand their needs, or the legislator who decided she wasn’t a teacher?

Hands down, my friends have my trust and respect.

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