Recently, there have been reports about another grade-schooler suspended for pointing his fingers like a gun (see the Ohio Dispatch story). I often dismiss these stories because (as anyone in education knows, with horror) the media “coverage” is usually one side of the story, or less. Schools often won’t comment due to student privacy rights: only the parents & the student have a right to his/her record, and any comment would serve to confirm or deny details of that record. And the “journalists” are only too willing to take a single, unconfirmed version of events to press. However, Jon Stewart’s coverage of this particular story (Daily Show: 25Mar2014) did include what seemed to be a comment from the school, stating that the school has a zero tolerance policy and the boy was aware of the specific ban on gun lookalikes. Regardless of the facts of this case, let’s just take the opportunity to discuss “zero tolerance.”
My school does not have a zero tolerance policy. That’s not because we’re willing to tolerate violence, threats, or any inappropriate conduct. Simply put “zero tolerance” refers to a specific set of rules proscribing punishments– usually minimum days of suspension– for certain behaviors. In other words, these policies demand that school officials remove the problem, rather than correct it.
What our Code of Conduct promotes instead is our Duty to Educate. When misconduct occurs, our goal is not to exclude the source of the problem, but to bring that troubled individual closer to us, to get to the source of the issue and correct the behavior. Take the example: a boy who does something clearly defined as wrong, like pointing a finger in a threatening way. This boy clearly needs further instruction. Why doesn’t he understand the threatening nature of this act? Why doesn’t he know how to control his behavior? How can we provide him skills to choose another action next time? If he’s choosing this route, he may be consciously choosing an anti-social path, but further isolating him from constructive social settings will do nothing to fix this deficit. It will do everything to reinforce it.
I am expressing a behavioral mindset, but in my experience the behavioral perspective does identify triggers and structure a plan to change the response. What is the goal of this behavior? To get attention? To get people to back off? If so, kicking the kid out of school provides these rewards, earning the child attention (albeit, negative attention) and pushing his peers away. Rather than enact a mindless trigger through “zero tolerance,” let’s look at the individual from a therapeutic angle. What are his needs? How can we address them? Can we teach him a constructive outlet?
Suspensions are assigned under our Code of Conduct, but they are rare and used as a last resort. Even then, we most often utilize in-school suspension to maximize our opportunity to educate. A student on in-school will meet with our counselors, providing lessons on coping skills. She will often meet with teachers one-on-one as they explain the missed class material, building positive relationships with reliable adults. She spends a good portion of the day with me, helping build a mutual understanding. Even the secretaries get to know the kids on in-school suspension better, and appreciate them on a different level than just “the kid who gets sent to the office all the time.” By adopting an attitude not of tolerance, but instead choosing not to be intolerant, we can begin to provide the supports that are otherwise lacking, reteaching the lessons in a way that may be more successful.