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Posted at 5:38 PM ET, 02/23/2011

Teens don't deserve zero-tolerance punishment

By Bernard S. Arons, Washington

The Feb. 22 Metro article "Suicide victim's family calls for policy change" filled me with sadness and anger.

Apparently, Fairfax County, along with quite a few other school systems in the country, continues to buy into a misguided notion of how to react to the expected missteps of adolescents. Setting a so-called zero-tolerance standard and pushing out young people for any violation of a series of expectations is thought to preserve high standards for the remaining, "good" students and help create firm boundaries. Instead, this approach is excessively harsh, and gratuitously destructive, and fails to take into account what we know about adolescent growth and development.

Of course there should be consequences for misbehavior. But surely we can think of appropriate consequences that keep the adolescent on a trajectory to a productive adulthood. For the typical adolescent, that trajectory would mean continuation of academic studies, social relations and extracurricular involvement. Removal from school and isolation from peers and teachers is unwise when increased attention, support and guidance are clearly required.

Within just a few years, the adolescent brain undergoes tremendous restructuring. This leads at times to mistakes and missteps. This can be a time for enhanced attention to the efforts needed to ensure healthy development. Or, by continuing a misguided zero-tolerance approach, it can further derail the potential for successful maturation.

The writer, medical director at Saint Elizabeths Hospital in the District, was a senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute of Mental Health from 2002 to 2004.

By Bernard S. Arons, Washington  | February 23, 2011; 5:38 PM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County, HotTopic, child services, schools  
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Next: Alternative disciplinary methods for teens


D'ya got any kids, Doc?

Posted by: Nemo24601 | February 23, 2011 10:28 PM | Report abuse

If schools need a zero-tolerance policy for every tiny infraction a student may commit can we at least have a similar policy for teachers who suck at their jobs? There are far too many of those high-paid jerks and we need to replace them sooner rather than later despite what teachers union thugs want. Start right here in DC - the Nation's breeding ground for corruption and ineptness.

Posted by: realist2 | February 23, 2011 11:29 PM | Report abuse

I too have a child that was expelled from school in Las Vegas under very similar circumstances as Nick Stuben. My son was in the 7th grade and was called in to the principal's office because of a rumor that he had taken a xanax. My son did, stupidly, buy a xanax from another student, took half, felt nothing and threw the rest away. He was interrogated, threatened with being arrested, (a police officer was called in) coerced into writing a confession (in which he very honestly volunteered all information), and only after signing the confession were my husband and I notified that he was in trouble at school. We found out on arrival that he was suspended with a recommendation for expulsion. All this, and he didn't even have an illegal or forbidden substance on him.

In short, the hearing was very similar to the one in Nick's case; there wasn’t a chance that he was not going to be expelled. In the Clark County School District they have "Behavioral Schools" that they send students to after expulsion. My seventh grader (12 years old) who had never, ever been in trouble before for anything beyond bugging his little sister, was thrown into a "Behavioral School" with students in grades 7 through 12. Many of these students were there for serious infractions, vandalism, selling drugs, violence toward another student or teacher. My son witnessed fights on a daily basis and in one class a student stabbed another student in the throat with a pencil. He was searched every morning on entering. He could not bring his lunch to school, could not bring a book home and could enter the school with only paper and a pencil. Once the school brought in a motivational speaker for the students, Mike Tyson, now there's a model citizen. My son attended this school for 6 months and has not been the same child since.

He stopped playing sports and remained in touch with only one friend. His grades have been only average since (he was an A/B student) He has suffered bouts of depression and anxiety. Lately he has been having scary outbursts of anger. He has threatened to commit suicide on a number of occasions, one just happening this past Monday. I took him to see a psychiatrist yesterday. When asked how long he had been having suicidal thoughts he replied, "since 7th grade", he is now 16.

How is it that a child can be interrogated by a police officer without even a phone call to the parents? How can a child be accused of an offense and convicted without any physical evidence? At the very least children should have Miranda rights and an impartial body passing judgment. There should be some consideration for past behavior, study habits, sportsmanship.

I would like to know how many children in this country have had their lives so adversely altered by the policies of our failing school system. How many children have taken the unconscionable, heartbreaking, step of taking their own life as a result of these draconian methods. My heart bleeds for these families.

Posted by: LKPK | February 24, 2011 3:35 PM | Report abuse

If I were a teacher or school administrator, I would be insulted by zero tolerance policies, because the authorities think you are too stupid to have and use any kind of discretion. It's simpler to have a one size fits all policy, because we're all stupid. So it's logical since you are an idiot, to treat someone who brings in cocaine the same as someone who brings in aspirin.

Posted by: scoran | February 25, 2011 8:34 AM | Report abuse

When the same type of policies where instituted in "urban" schools - or even talked about - there was very little outcry. Reminds me of the zero drug tolerance laws and 3 strikes. Now we see that these "stupid/unyielding" laws/rules are not good for anyone but we only worry about them when they infringe upon us.

Posted by: rlj611 | February 25, 2011 10:12 AM | Report abuse

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