Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Losing tolerance for Zero Tolerance

It might be a couple years old but things haven't changed: this excellent article by Randy Cassingham over at This Is True talks about some incidents in his home state of Colorado.

United Press International, November 1997
A 10-year-old girl at McElwain Elementary in Thornton, Colo., was one of a group of girls who "repeatedly" asked a certain boy on the playground if he liked them. The boy complained to a teacher, so school administrators, citing the district's "zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy", decided to suspend her. After an outcry from outraged parents, the school changed its mind. A district spokeswoman said school officials "probably" overreacted, but "it's all in how you look at it."

United Press International, November 1997
A Colorado Springs, Colo., school district says it did the right thing when it suspended 6-year-old Seamus Morris under the school's zero-tolerance drug policy. The drug? Lemon drops. Taylor Elementary School administrators called an ambulance after a teacher saw the boy give another student some candy, which was a brand teachers didn't recognize. "It was not something you would purchase in a grocery store," a district spokesman said. "It was from a health-food store." A spokesman for St. Claire's Lemon Tarts, however, noted that the candy is indeed sold in Colorado's largest grocery store chain. School officials were not impressed, and not only upheld the half-day suspension, but told the boy's mother that a child who brings candy to school is comparable to a teen who takes a gun to school.

Reuters, January, 1998
An 11-year-old British schoolboy met an Australian classmate and greeted him by saying, "G'day, sport." The boy, who was not named, was "caught" by a teacher, the school said in a statement, and while "there was no maliciousness or intent" on the boy's part, he was charged with racism for his greeting. "The boy was counseled, ...dialogue has taken place with parents," and the boy was made to write "I must not use racist remarks" 60 times, said the statement by Beverley Grammar School in Yorkshire. Tony Brett Young of the Australian High Commission was concerned it was a case of political correctness gone overboard. "'G'day sport' is part of our vernacular," he said. "It's just a traditional and friendly manner of speaking."

What are the stories above? The little girl wasn't sexually harassing a little boy, she was being a little girl, trying to learn how to deal with the opposite sex -- a trial-and-error process (don't you remember?) where the errors shouldn't be treated as a felony. The six-year-old boy wasn't using or selling drugs, he was sharing candy. Sharing candy! And the British lad wasn't making light of a fellow white boy's ancestry, he was trying to greet a potential friend in a way that was familiar to him.

Calling every botched encounter between genders "sexual harassment" tells true victims of that crime that their experience was similar to a schoolyard crush. Calling sharing "drug use" tells children that there's no difference between giving a friend a lemon drop and selling him heroin cut with rat poison. And calling the use of vernacular "racism" demeans people that suffer from horrible crimes: the denial of their ability to live and make a living. And it tells the people that are not involved in these issues that really, these things are just trivial things, nothing to worry about. This racism stuff is not a problem, drugs aren't a scourge, and sexual harassment is just consenting adults with unequal paychecks.

Are these the lessons legislators intend when they pass zero-tolerance laws -- and when bureaucrats enforce them? Because that's what the kids are learning... Terrorizing a little kid for sharing candy -- and justifying it afterward when an outraged parent complains -- doesn't stop drug use. And it never will.

This piece was written nearly ten years ago, yet it seems that any of these incidents could have happened yesterday. Even though school boards have reversed decisions after public outcry, it's not the individual incidents that are the problem; it's the mindset. The parents and media who express this outrage need to continue to pressure the schools into changing their policies, and not just into making individual exceptions.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Boy turns in knife, may still be expelled

Indianapolis Star, April 3, 2006

An Indiana couple are stunned that a principal suspended their son and recommended his expulsion for possession of a pocketknife even though he turned the knife in to the office as soon as he arrived at school. After turning in the knife, the eighth-grader was suspended from Stonybrook Middle School for 10 days and may be expelled. Elizabeth Voge-Wehrheim and Frank Wehrheim, the boy's mother and stepfather, have hired attorney Lawrence T. Newman to represent them.

"This young man made the most responsible choice under any policy possible," Newman said of the boy, Elliot Voge. "They are treating him as the most irresponsible student under the circumstances." Elliot, 14, said he was walking to the school entrance in the brisk weather March 3 and had placed his hands in his coat pocket when he felt the Swiss Army pocketknife in the pocket. "I went straight to the office right inside (the front door)," he said. He said he handed the knife to the school's treasurer,and told her he had brought it to school by mistake. As a result of Elliot's actions, the school's principal, Jimmy Meadows, suspended Elliot for the maximum 10 school days as allowed by law and recommended Elliot be expelled.

The family's attorney said school officials' actions send students the wrong message. "Their message is to be dishonest, take more chances," Newman said. Elliot "didn't want to keep it (the knife) on his person," Newman said. "The school is saying, 'Don't make this responsible choice.' "

I don't think anyone can argue that students should be able to take weapons to school, any more than you or I can take weapons to the office, into a theatre, or on an airplane. But the people in charge here should be able to discern between a tool, brought in error, and surrendered immediately and voluntarily, and a loaded firearm brought intentionally and concealed.

The family attorney has the right idea here. Under the circumstances, what choice did the kid have? Other sources say that Elliot was using the knife over the weekend to whittle some wood, which is how it ended up in his pocket in the first place, and that he only noticed its presence after his parent had dropped him off outside the school and classes were to begin soon. Elliot had been a model student, recommended for AP courses the following year with no disciplinary record. His friends urged him to hide it but no, he made the honest and responsible choice. Would that more adults followed his example.

Zero tolerance means zero thought. It's also another violation of the constitutional rights guaranteed to all citizens; the Fifth Amendment right to due process of law. Automatic expulsion of students for an infraction, no matter what the circumstances or the severity, denies the students their right to defend themselves against the accusation.

Follow-up: Due to widespread outrage and media attention, the following week the principal reversed his decision and opted not to punish the student. This was a highly publicised case that resulted in a victory for the teen in question, but is still symptomatic of the larger problems. How many of these kinds of cases go by without the media frenzy? We as a society need to address the root cause of this knee-jerk reaction, and not just focus on the extremes.

School bans MySpace accounts for students

St. Hugo of the Hills Catholic School in Bloomfield Hills has taken its concern about student postings on Web sites such as MySpace one step further than most schools.
It announced a policy that flatly refuses to enroll students with accounts on MySpace.com or similar sites. Students were told Tuesday to delete their accounts on such social networking sites if they wanted to stay at the school.

St. Hugo officials could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, but the policy is displayed on the school's Web site.

"Over the last several weeks, there has been an arrest of a teacher and a police officer, both of whom posed as children on the Internet to arrange meetings with unsuspecting children," according to the notice on the school's home page. "It is out of this concern that we have determined that the school must take a stand." The policy also says: "If a family chooses to allow their children to continue their MySpace.com account, they will not be allowed to continue as students at St. Hugo."

The school's Web site also pointed out that MySpace-style sites of some St. Hugo students violate the school's Internet policy against inappropriate comments, pictures and harassment.

"I'm perfectly OK with that," Bruce Calengor of Rochester said of the policy. His 13-year-old son, Charles, attends St. Hugo. "I don't allow him to do that sort of stuff. He has access to the Internet, but I don't allow that. ... I think there are plenty of things they can do without monkeying around on things like that."

Where on Earth does the school get the authority to expel or deny entry to students based on what they do outside of school hours and off school grounds? (My mistake, it's a Catholic school. See comments.) Potential criminal or social problems that arise from extracurricular activities are problems for the guidance counselor to deal with, and I can understand why administrators would restrict Internet usage on school time and equipment. But a blanket ban on something the school has no jurisdiction over? It's the equivalent of having a policy that states "No Students May Wear Hats" then expelling students that are found to be wearing hats, whether or not they are on school property. Isn't that utterly ridiculous?

Now this may fall under the same general category that allows employers to prohibit inter-office romances, itself of dubious legality unless the relationship has explicit repercussions within the workplace. Nonetheless, it is not the school's place to administer or discipline based on students' private lives, nor to punish those who have done nothing wrong.

MySpace's policy is to deny accounts to anyone under the age of fourteen. Parents can be held accountable for their kids' Internet access, and threats or harassment can met with the appropriate response by disciplinarians inside or outside the school. Online predators can be tracked and kids can be educated about the dangers of sharing personal information online. Popularity contests are entirely normal and meaningless. There are other, more responsible ways of dealing with the issues that caused this than suspending kids for their choosing to set up an account. If the TEACHERS and the POLICE are posing as predators to lure children, then what should be screamingly obvious is that the TEACHERS and the POLICE are the ones who need to be shaken down.

The people responsible for it don't want to care, though. It's easier for parents and teachers to institute a blanket policy than it is for them to take the time and effort to address the real, dangerous issues they fear, with the result that those issues go unaddressed and the kids have earned nothing but another tightening of the collar, all in the name of 'safety.' It's the same overstepping of authority and sweeping security reform that's caused the restrictions of personal liberties for adults, too.

Stay tuned, more on the way. But first, I gotta change my laundry over.

Mission Statement

After consciously avoiding the blogosphere, including its MySpace, Facebook and other social networking brethren, I feel I've finally found a purpose. I've become increasingly alarmed and dismayed by the state of our public schools today, in that since the Columbine High School massacre and, more recently, the September 11th terrorist attacks, our nation's children are increasingly living in a fascist state for seven hours of every day for fourteen years. Increasing numbers of journalists, bloggers and young adults are becoming aware of this but I have found no concentrated evidence log, activist center or article repository for reformers to rally around. Hence, this blog.

Look back at your own youth. After your parents, was there any force that impacted your personality, your everyday life, or your future ambitions more than your schooling?

My parents transferred me to another school in fifth grade because of the terrible treatment I had received, and I'm a better person for it. My brother is not so lucky. When I have children I intend to conduct interviews with administrators of potential schools, public and private, and present them hypothetical situations based on the incidents you'll read about here. Millions of parents are not so lucky to afford tuition for sending their children to another school district, so I also intend to act for reformation of the school system and the reversal of 'zero tolerance' policies.

Now, on to the specifics. I'll start with the article my friend Erica sent me and prompted this whole thing; then I'll archive some of the more offensive incidents I've read about in the past few years. More to come, please feel free to send me any happenings at your school that deserve condemnation and reform. And every time a child is expelled for pointing a finger at a classmate and shouting "Bang!" remember to ask, "What are these kids actually learning from this?"

And so it begins.

So. I've finally decided to start blogging... more details to come.