Sunday, January 17, 2010

Zero Tolerance

I used to blog for my old company, but they took the blog down. I am
not actually allowed to own the writings I put up on that blog, but as
I reference them on occasion in my writing I am putting those articles
up in my archives here for reference sake. I'll put the tag GS on those
articles noting that they were originally published on the

Zero Tolerance

May 15, 2008 – 5:20 am by Brendan

We can hope that zero tolerance is finally going the way of the Dodo. In Florida, the law makers are proposing to strike zero tolerance from school policy. According to this article from The Journal Florida, law makers required schools to enact a zero tolerance policy for violations of school policy. In April of this year, legislation was presented to literally strike the words zero tolerance from the law. Read the legislation and the first instance of zero tolerance is on line 1444 and it is literally crossed out.

Do policies truly change when you cross out two words? Reading the law it seems pretty clear zero tolerance was specifically geared towards crime and substance abuse. So why do we need a specific policy to enforce the law?

In the day to day life of any school, teachers and principals are making dozens, even hundreds of decisions on enforcement of school policy. Think about it for a second, school policy covers everything from what can be worn to what can be brought into a classroom. Some are more strict than others, but schools, especially middle and high schools, are dealing with children looking to figure out their place in the world. The first thing anyone does when looking for their place in the world is to stretch out and see how much room they actually have.

Take, for example, my homework policy. I always start out the year asking students to do homework on looseleaf paper with a specific header in the top right corner. This is neater and helps me to stay organized because I have the date and homework assignment clearly marked. Usually, though by the third week or so of school I will rarely if ever mark down homework that isn’t in the correct format, unless in my opinion that person can and should put more effort into that area of life.

Organizational skills, though not a specific Math objective, are important skills to learn. I’m not above teaching them even if I don’t have any myself, I mean, if I think it will improve my students overall education. The point though is that I am pretty well qualified to determine if a student can and should be held accountable to this policy.

I’m not right 100% of the time of course, that is why I usually allow myself more discretion in smaller areas like homework than in larger areas like fighting. If I ever see two students fighting I always bring the principal in on the conversation. I may recommend leniency, but as a teacher I don’t have the authority to make the decision on what the punishment should be. Actually, that isn’t right either. I think there may have been a time or two when I have had students argue in class and I haven’t called in a principal. This isn’t to say I haven’t made note of the event and brought the principal or counselor up to speed later. At that particular time I didn’t think it was serious enough to warrant stopping class, calling the principal, bringing her up to speed and then writing an incident report, while the rest of the class was hopefully busy doing something else besides going absolutely nuts.

Now that I think about it, there have been many times when I have wandered into the counselor’s or principals office to informally mention behaviors I thought they should be made aware. Usually, it had to do with my being worried about the mental health, or the family life, or grades of a student, but almost always because I thought it would be better if the students could be talked to without the need to enforce the full weight of the school policy.

Safety in school is one of those areas where nobody wants to make a mistake. The reality is, the big fears that seem to have lead to zero tolerance policies would not have been prevented by zero tolerance policies. Like yesterday, there is no easy fix. I can guarantee that if there is a solution it will involve the wisdom and judgment of people, not a one size fits all policy of punishment.


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