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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Common Sense

I read an article in the newspaper today about how many schools are returning to zero tolerance policies (some have never left them) following the tragedy at Newtown.  There was an example in the article about one kindergarten boy who made a toy gun from legos and pretended to use it.  After he didn't immediately respond to the teacher's directions he was subsequently suspended for two weeks.  Another two boys were using their fingers to play guns on the playground and ended up being suspended.   A superintendent was interviewed and justified these suspensions by claiming that schools needed to take these incidents seriously and show that they are concerned about people feeling safe in schools.   A critic of these decisions labelled these actions as criminalizing "play".

Play, if not criminalized in schools,  today has just about been outlawed because it is considered "fluff" and detracts from real academic learning.  Criminalizing just takes this type of thinking to the next logical conclusion.  These responses to student behavior are not only deeply wrong that are also indicative of serious problems with the basic assumptions that underlie policy and practice.  These assumptions that govern decision making that are not only ineffective in preventing bullying, they inadvertently promote bullying behaviors in schools. 

Here are just a few points to consider:

As much as governmental policy stresses the need for evidence based programs, why is it that the clear research on the lack of effectiveness of zero tolerance policies so easily ignored by so many schools.

Learning is what school is all about (or should be about).  Why is it that all solid and clear research on cognitive, language and social development including the critical role that play has into three of those domains, been overlooked and ignored?

How does a five or six year student interpret school suspension?  Does the child say, "I did something bad that I better not do again." What does that decision tell the child about his/her relationship to school itself?  I think it sends a harsh message, a very harsh message:  be careful about what you do or say or do.  I think it would be very hard for children to separate a lack of acceptance of their behavior from a lack of acceptance of themselves as people.

How do bystanders perceive these decisions made by school administrators and supported by teachers?  These decisions stigmatize the perpetrators making them look very different from the students who are not suspended.  This perception of difference among peers is a primary reason why bystanders don't speak up for others.  These children who are so easily suspended become prime targets for future bullying.

If they do become targets for bullying, will they be more or less likely to trust the school to help them with their problems?  It is pretty clear that they would have little trust in schools to help them with anything.  It is very likely that schools would be viewed as unfriendly places.

As bystanders become older and start to judge and evaluate the words and actions of adults, these zero tolerance policies will only decrease the respect that students have for those in charge.  This lack of respect depresses the likelihood for them feel ownership in the school and the likelihood of them taking the risk of speaking up or intervening.  They might even fear getting in trouble themselves for "helping".

At a time when trust and respect for schools as institutions is less and less a given in our society, decisions by school administrators that demonstrate a lack of common sense only make people wonder about the competence and judgement of anyone who works in a school.

Zero tolerance policies don't even permit the possibility of school administrators making decision based on individual students, their own assessment of the real threat involved, their own thinking and reasoning.  "Schools" become places that blindly follow a rule or procedure without any thinking or reasoning.  This only reinforces the view of schools as bureaucracies and not places of learning.

As a principal for seventeen years, I suspended one student from school for one day. That was the only time I used suspension as a consequence.  I did this early in my tenure and it was for pulling a fire alarm.  I found that as time went on that there were many, many other alternatives to suspension as means to deal with problem behaviors.  Was our school chaotic, unruly, and out of control?  On the contrary, our discipline problems were minimal.  We had such success within the school building that we felt confident about tackling the school bus issues.  We applied what worked in the school to the school bus and then had success in dramatically reducing our bus problems.  How did we do it?  By learning about each student and what each student needed to be successful.  We switched from a criminal justice mindset when it came to behavior problems to an educational mindset.  We decided that kids made mistakes not as criminals but as kids and it was our job to help them learn from their mistakes. Might be radical but we involved kids in problem solving their own problems and tried to give them the tools they needed to solve problems in a more effective way.  We built community and nurtured trusting relationships so that when a student did something irresponsible there were trusting adults available to help them learn from their mistakes.  It doesn't have to be more complicated than that.  Ask yourself:  do you need to suffer some form of punishment to learn from every mistake you make, or is it possible to learn without suffering.  If the answer is the later, which it was for us at our school, then we found other ways of helping kids learn and those other ways almost always "worked".  It just took a little common sense! Let's not have "common sense" (or as Barry Schwartz referred to it: "practical wisdom") become a radical notion in schools.

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