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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Zero tolerance in public schools teaches wrong message

By John Brock  

Students in public schools today are so bogged down by bureaucratic regulations that it must be difficult to get an education much less enjoy and relish the process. The major problem is that there is too little commonsense expressed by many who are in charge of public education. The latest example of idiocy in our public schools is the detention of a young girl who (now get this) "hugged" a classmate. Not an inappropriate amorous hug but a simple friendly, instantaneous hug. A hug might be just what some youngsters need in life Ð not detention or expulsion. But according to school officials, the youngster was punished under the school's policy which prohibits all physical contact.Nowhere can a more foolish notion be illustrated than in the so-called "zero tolerance" behavior codes adopted by many public school systems. No room is left for rational thinking.Weekly, we hear reports of kids being suspended or expelled for mundane infractions of much too broad behavior restrictions. Over-zealous public officials allow no room for commonsense when it comes to student conduct. Kids are expected, by law, to be better behaved than many, if not most, of their adult counterparts. What a shame.According to one national survey: "Public policy toward children today has moved toward treating them more like adults and in ways that increasingly mimic the adult criminal justice system. The most recent version of this movement is so-called 'zero tolerance' in schools, where theories of punishment that were once directed to adult criminals are now applied to first-graders." Are we teaching young people the wrong lessons? Uniform, ultra-strict discipline offers neither equity nor fairness in punishment and likely creates a loss of respect for authority and rules in general which is not the lesson we want to impart.Frequently, we read of outrageous reaction to the simple actions of kids functioning normally Ð as young people. One student gave an aspirin to an ailing classmate Ð not allowed under the school's no-drug rules. A mother saw her child disciplined because a plastic knife was found in her lunch pail in order that her kid could slice an apple. This child worried that the plastic utensil might be "illegal" under school rules and asked the teacher about it. The little girl was then punished for bringing a weapon into the school!
Bullying has become such a hot topic that some folks are willing to put kids in jail for their alleged bullying even when the so-called bullying is simple, innocent teasing by fellow students. How's a kid to learn how to survive in life without enduring occasional teasing? Most of us were teased Ð sometimes unmercifully Ð but we managed to grow into productive, functioning adults. In today's everybody-is-a-victim rationale, kids can no longer be kids. Bullying that causes harm to another should by all means be controlled but simple teasing is just the way kids behave.Bullying was handled on an individual basis during my growing-up years. Donnie was giving me a fit in the seventh grade. I was 12 years old and he was making my life miserable during and after school hours. He didn't just tease. He hit Ð on the arm, in the stomach, on the head Ð anywhere convenient and just for "fun."I was taught the "turn-the-other-cheek" technique of getting on in this world but one day, it just got too much for me and I confided in my Dad.After hearing the full story, my Dad, a mild, peaceful man, understood that Donnie would not be thwarted by gentle means and gave advice that served me well. He said, "Tomorrow, walk up to Donnie; don't say a word Ð just knock the hell out of him!" I knew he was quite serious because he never used profanity.I did just as Dad said. And you know what? Donnie never bothered me again. Problem solved. It stopped the taunting and as Donnie picked himself up off of the floor, he had learned a valuable lesson because he never picked on anyone again that I ever saw.But today, Donnie and I would both be punished Ð likely expelled or arrested. Local law enforcement officials would probably be on my front porch to "interview" my Dad.In all fairness, this personal encounter happened many years ago when our culture was more genteel and weapon-wielding kids were unheard of. Today, Donnie might pull out a gun and shoot me. Or, his dad may pay an armed visit to my Dad.I will never forget when one of my sons was in the sixth grade. He rode to school with me as I traveled to work each morning which caused him to arrive at the schoolhouse 20 minutes before the beginning of classes. Those who arrived early were to report to the school auditorium and sit silently until the starting bell rung. An over-zealous principal oversaw the silence rule and enforced it to the letter.My son had a deaf friend, who was a classmate, and he had learned a little sign language to accommodate his friend's handicap. One morning my son walked into the silent auditorium and saw his friend sitting nearby. My son said, "Hello," in sign language, whereupon, the school constabulary pounced upon him and meted out standard punishment for "talking." But, that's mild by today's standards.This zero-tolerance policy idiocy has become a one-size-fits-all endeavor and has defined many students as criminals with unintended outcomes. Those running our schools must address real disciplinary problems and they face challenging tasks but their efforts must be predicated on commonsense.
Too many times this is not the case.

John Brock is a retired professor and newspaper editor/publisher who lives in Georgetown County. He can be reached by mail at this newspaper or via Email: His website featuring his new book, "Southern Breezes Whistle Dixie," can be found at

©Georgetown Times 2007

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