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.