Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Zero Tolerance

My new school basically has a "zero tolerance" policy for drugs, alcohol and weapons. It's not technically written into the school handbook, but historically students have been automatically expelled for possession of any such contraband. Two more recent incidents (within the past six months) have strayed from this expulsion policy, with students were put on a sort of probation and expected to meet certain requirements to keep from being expelled.

The most recent non-expulsion was apparently a strong source of contention among the board members as well as the faculty, so today we had a staff discussion about it. Maybe it's just due to my experiences at schools where expulsion was a serious last resort, I was extremely surprised to hear the strong support (at least from those who spoke up) for the zero tolerance policy. The main reason seemed to be the strong message that zero tolerance supposedly sends as a deterrent to such behavior. In theory, I get that. As a teacher, it is convenient to tell my students such a hard line. My "be good" speech before the camping trip was easier when I could say "If you bring drugs or alcohol, you will be expelled" than if I had merely said "If you bring drugs or alcohol, there will be serious consequences." There it is, done, black and white.

But the simplicity of it all is a huge reason why I'm uncomfortable with zero tolerance policies. If we are a school that purports to be strongly grounded in the community we've built, a school that prides itself on "revision and redemption," a school where we work on character just as much as academics, what kind of strong message are we sending when we say one strike and you're out? I agree, there should be times when a student does something so extreme that s/he should not be permitted to return to the school. I.e. when that student's continued presence creates a physically dangerous situation. Maybe my moral compass that determines levels of badness is askew, but I find it highly unlikely that a student with a bottle of liquor in his backpack is posing the kind of threat that can only be resolved by sending him to another school. More importantly, if we are as superior a school as we say we are, it's extremely unlikely that Mr. Underage Drinker will get the kind of support he needs at his new school to keep him from making the same mistake again. Wouldn't he be better off staying with us where yes, there can be serious consequences, but he'll follow through on those consequences surrounded by teachers who know and care about him and know him as more than Mr. Underage Drinker. I love the way we build community and how students see our school as a family. But I don't want to be a part of a family that kids out their teenager for one mistake. Wouldn't a better lesson to the community be that we take care of those who mess up and try to help them make better decisions?

Particularly as a charter school, it's not just our school community that we need to think about when making policy decisions, but also the greater community. We need to make an extra good impression to the community that proves that we're worth keeping around and continuing to fund. Because we are specifically not a magnet school, but rather a school that prides itself on being able to teach all students at a high level of rigor, it's important that we maintain a diverse population. Of course it's easy to say you educate all students when you only have one type of student; it's when you have a wide range that the "all students" part gets tough. But what if you kick out "all students" who don't fit in with your behavior expectations? More often than not, the kids who get caught bringing drugs and alcohol to school are also the ones with poor grades, low test scores, and negative behavioral histories. How convenient that they would get expelled. Not to say, of course, that this is what's actually happening, that the school is seeking ways to get rid of those students who bring down our image. But it does make it easier for opponents to point fingers when we have stricter guidelines for what is required to stay in school. Just saying.

What should happen to those kids who bring drugs and alcohol to school? What would I hope those "serious consequences" to be? Here's the point where I pass the buck and say that I don't have a good solution, but that's why I'm a teacher, not an administrator.


Linda said...

I almost wrote a long tirade on this because it is something about which I feel strongly. I am opposed to expulsion unless it truly is the last resort. I will spare you the tirade and wait to hear what happens at your school. Thanks for a very thought provoking post.

Anonymous said...

In my teaching in Billings, I was put in charge of a program that was a "last resort" for kids who had been expelled from out-of-state residential psychiatric facilities. We had to deal with behaviors that would not be tolerated elsewhere, and there were a number of incidents involving guns, knives, drugs and alcohol, as well as out-of-control physical and verbal outbursts. The police and psychiatric center knew my students and classroom well. With too-limited resources, we were able to accomplish education and treatment to help a number of the kids "make it" into lesser level of care facilities, and some even gained skills to live semi-independently--which was a big savings for taxpayers over life-long residential care somewhere. It came at a price though--teaching assistants with permanent physical injuries, and my own training did not prevent me from serious injuries and eventual medical leave for PTSD that came as a result of hundreds of physical assaults, a number requiring medical care. There has to be something in place for all students, but for the good of the general school population and the well-being and learning of other students, I am in support of in-house, time-away programs which have the kinds of support needed, yet still have high academic expectations before the student can return to a regular program.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I like the in-house idea, too. And I couldn't agree more that one strike in terms of alcohol or drugs is ridiculous. You have to know your population and it's part of a teen's job to mess up at times.

I feel weapons are in a different category, but hard and fast doesn't always work there, either.