Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sunday Scribblings--Punishment and Crime #2

Now for the less personal.
I want to write here about the policy of Zero Tolerance at this nation’s schools. This policy is simple on paper. A student commits a violent act and is promptly kicked out of school. We all have heard about the intermittent episodes of school violence over the past years, from Columbine to Paducah to Red Lake, Minnesota. The story is drearily and tragically the same, unhappy, disaffected student(s) gets gun and shoots a number of people at his school. The media has a field day, there are tearful tributes and children, parents and teachers everywhere are traumatized. There is endless debate about how these events could have been prevented, if the perpetrators were mentally ill, abused, bullied, or poorly parented, and how to prevent the next incident.
I have tremendous sympathy for the victims and also for the perpetrators who must also have been some kind of victim themselves. I wonder how our society can make it so easy for minors to get guns. Is there a subtle racism that most of these incidents involved white kids? Our inner cities are full of minority children with guns but they don’t warrant the deep analyses and their victims only make the local headlines. Perhaps it is too easy to attribute all these episodes to gangs and drugs. Needless to say, the inner city schools around here are more likely to have metal detectors in place and more serious security measures than a school of Amish or Evangelical Christian kids.
However, my issue is not with the well-publicized and often debated episodes of violence but with the kids who fall prey to the Zero Tolerance policies who are generally non-violent but suffer from some form of poor judgment or impulsive behavior. These are the kids who get upset and threaten to kill someone but don’t really mean it. Or the kids who have the bad taste to listen to whatever alternative musician is currently associated with teen violence (this was Marilyn Manson for a time). There is the kid who couldn’t figure out that he is not supposed to bring his pocket knife to school to show all his friends. There are also the kids who have the poor judgment to use drugs or alcohol on campus and have the misfortune to get caught.
Some of the kids have impulse control disorders such as Bipolar Disorder or ADHD. They have bad tempers due to depression, anxiety or being chronically misunderstood or bullied. Twenty years ago two kids who got into a pushing and shoving or even boxing match at school would have been disciplined but no one would have asked a psychiatrist if they were likely to be mass murderers. Now they wind up in my office for an evaluation and have disciplinary hearings at school.
In a moving New Yorker piece, Malcolm Gladwell argues for discretionary discipline at schools. He tells the story of a physics graduate student who tried to poison his professor and was handled with leniency. This student went on to become a world renowned physicist. (I won’t spoil the punch-line with the name of the physicist. Follow the link if you are curious). Gladwell says: “punishment without the possibility of redemption is . . . the Crucifixion without Christ.”
As a child’s advocate, I find myself pleading for kids to be allowed to continue in school in spite of their bad behavior. The truth is that most kids, no matter how behaviorally inappropriate, do not murder their classmates and teachers and are still entitled to a “free and appropriate public education.” At the very least, if a child is kicked out of their current school, there should be an acceptable, public or publicly-funded, alternative for those who want to stay in school. Even in the juvenile-justice system, it is assumed that kids can be rehabilitated. The kids I advocate for haven’t even committed crimes that the legal system finds worth prosecuting. Not every kid deserves a second chance but most do. By definition, Zero Tolerance precludes this. We need to see past our fear in dealing with temperamental children and adolescents. If they need help, we need to find it for them. If they need to learn not to speak rashly when angry, they need our tolerance and patience. After all, they are kids.


Pepper said...

bMy daughter was diagnosed first with depression, that led into bi polar disorder, which led into schizophrenia and of course that led into MEDICATIONS. This started when she was 14 and by the time she was 15 she weighed 210 pounds and was a zombie bent on killing me. Can you believe I was working for Children Services and no one would help me. The last hospitalization I was told she couldn't come home with me because she tried to kill me. But she came home and I promptly gave her the one thing that everyone was so quick to take away. It was her ability to make her own decisions. She moved out my home at 15, we rented her an apartment, she got a job, quit school, and I was with her all the way. Then I weaned her off of her medications. I was turned in for medically neglecting her but nothing came of it. At 16 she enrolled in back in school. I didn't know until the school called me. I think they were still afraid of her. She graduated at 17 years 6 months of age. She packed her bags and moved away from her home town. She is currently enrolled in college, works, and she is learning to accept the person she is and she is finding out that she is a pretty neat person. Oh she weighs 120 pounds. How did I learn to trust her again and visa versa? I taught her how to drive a car. A child needs parents or a parent even when she thinks she is in control. Sometimes parents have to take risks and let the child take a leap. I monitored her carefully and was always available for her and I am still am. Truthfully she is an awesome person and I am so proud of her.

Debo Blue said...

Children are children and should be treated as such, especially by the courts when handing out punishments. Most times, being handcuffed and removed from school is enough to embarass or deter the behaviour that got the kid in trouble in the first place. The courts should allow for increased, focused tutoring of these children to learn which behaviours should be tolerated etc. Great blog.

ren.kat said...

I know you are a mental health specialist, but I am pretty sure bipolar is rare in adolescents. (Bipolar tendencies usually manifest in a person's 20s.- I have a vested interest in protecting the term bipolar from being used to describe violent people- sorry,I'm not a mental health professional, but I've been studying darn near everything written on this particular subject for the last 20 years).

I was wondering- I always thought that these kids going in and shooting at random- or shooting large numbers of kids pretty much at random- was a white middle class phenomenon and that when there have been instances of African American children shooting at school, they are out for a target and don't shoot themselves in the end? (I know there was the Native American kid a few years ago- but that's not related to the black/white racism you're talking about- and it did get publicity, even here). Just wondering - in all sincerity. I get all this info from a pretty significant distance :-)

m.m.crow said...

I've read some of the other essays for Sunday Scribblings, too. I'd like to suggest a book ~ maybe you've already read it, being in your feild ~ Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn? I worked for three years managing a group home for teenage boys and also doing "behavioral counseling". I could go on and on but I think this book will resonate for you. Let me know if you check it out.

sarala said...

These comments are all wonderful. I'd like to take the time to respond more later when I don't have two kids to get to school and work awaiting.

Kathe said...

This brings to mind a "Hayley story." I won't go into detail here (she doesn't know that I know about it), but perhaps will share it with you sometime.