Zero Tolerance: Cure Can Be Harsher Than Crime
The stories are as varied and sad as they are plentiful, and they've been pouring into my in-box ever since yesterday's column first popped up on the big web site: Parents spelling out how zero tolerance policies in school systems from Fairfax to southern Maryland and throughout the region exacerbated their child's troubles--or worse.
The column about the suicide of Josh Anderson, a junior at South Lakes High School in Reston, on the eve of a Fairfax County schools disciplinary hearing that might have ended with his expulsion from the system has struck quite a nerve, and I want to give you a sense of the range of emotions and arguments that are coming in.
Some folks who believe schools and all public authorities are on a pointless vendetta against illegal drugs thought that my sympathy for Anderson meant that I'd be on their side. How can the Anderson story "not be a wake up call for all of us to pay more attention to the Draconian drug policies we embrace in this country in so many realms, not just schools?" one reader asked--one among quite a few who support drug legalization.
But to my mind, the alternative to zero tolerance rules in the schools is not legalization, not tolerance of drug abuse, but rather dedicating our education resources to finding the right blend of punishment, treatment, counseling and teaching for each kid who breaks the rules. After all, aren't the people who work in the schools supposed to get to know each child?
Here's a Charles County parent telling the story of her 10th grader, who "was caught holding a "nickel" amount of pot for someone, only to get turned in by that same person via a "tip box," where kids get paid for turning in other kids.
He received the same deal as Josh Anderson--suspension with recommendation for expulsion. We hired an attorney, fought the school board and the juvenile court, and our son was thankfully not expelled. Did he exhibit bad judgment? Yes. Hold him accountable, but let the punishment fit the crime. During his six-week suspension, he was only allowed homework during the first eight days, until his hearing. After that, he was told no homework for the remaining four weeks of the year 'as a consequence for his actions.' Let me tell you, using no homework as a punishment for a 15-year-old is not a consequence - it's a vacation. There was nothing helpful at all in their actions (except for perhaps alerting us to what he had done).
One year later, that child has not gotten into trouble again--and the parent credits that in good part to the fact that they were able to avert expulsion. "The choice offered for my son, if expelled, was to be placed in a school for violent and seriously troubled kids," the mother notes--a surefire path toward more trouble, in her view and that of many other parents.
A Fairfax reader echoes the view of many others by noting that the zero tolerance approach in high schools not only produces harsher results than we mete out for many adults caught doing the same things, but also contrasts sharply and bizarrely with the anything-goes atmosphere on many college campuses. If Josh Anderson "had been accepted at one of the ivy-covered institutes in Boston or a liberal arts schools amidst the Redwoods of California, he would have been surprised by the approach of campus security forces who recognize that the familiar scent of marijuana does not mean that students are drug dealers and dope fiends," this reader writes. "But here in Fairfax County, the very system that pushes our children to excel academically as the best in the nation appears to have pushed this young man over the edge."
I wouldn't condone either the zero tolerance philosophy or the laissez faire policies at many colleges. The point here for me is that the move from a repressive, inflexible system to one of total freedom sends all too many kids into a period of excessive behavior. At what point is moderation taught to those who did not learn it at home?
A Fairfax County school board member wrote to argue that my piece was "nonsense and facile." Board member Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner says that "As one policy-maker, responsible for helping oversee a system serving nearly 170,000 students, I am not at all naïve about the likelihood that some of our students are not being well-served. We are not perfect by any measure. I am confident, however, that the FCPS culture is one of high expectations, service, caring, and commitment to our students; and I value the ethic of continuous improvement. We make mistakes; we also work to correct them."
The board member says "There is no more demanding responsibility for public schools than maintaining a sufficiently safe and orderly environment within which learning can take place. I encourage you to spend even just a few minutes time talking with any of our school psychologists or social workers in order to - on one hand -- get exposed to the 'finger in the dike' efforts they undertake to help troubled kids and their families through difficult periods in their young lives."
I've done just that on many occasions, but don't listen to me, listen to the school social workers and counselors themselves. They wrote to me in droves over the past 24 hours, and they are massively frustrated by a system that strips local schools of the ability to handle the disciplining of kids who are caught with, say, a couple of Tylenol at school, forcing families into a pseudo-judicial process in which those who know the student best play a marginal role.
A Prince William County parent describes how his son faced expulsion after being found with less that one gram of marijuana on the next to last day of the school year. The boy was not permitted to graduate and had to repeat his senior year through home schooling because the county would not permit him to attend its schools. "It seems incredibly stupid to take a child with problems and to compound those problems by removing support, and tossing him out of school," the father writes. "Prisons need inmates and what better way than to [produce them than to ostracize a student,] drop them back a grade, take kids that already are behind the eight ball, and make success that much harder. I know that sounds paranoid, but for the life of me I can't figure out how this policy does any good whatsoever. It's a political tampon meant to suck up the fears of the weak-minded."
But a Maryland father came to the opposite conclusion after his son's encounter with the system: "As the father of a child who nearly died in a Maryland high school from a drug overdose, my belief is a no-tolerance policy should just be the first step. There should be searches in all public high schools, drug dogs should be used on a random basis every month. Our high schools are large and provide students easier access to a wider variety of drugs than any inner-city street corner. There should be ways (phone, email, text) for all students to anonymously turn in students and/or dealers who bring illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol to school."
Finally, a Virginia woman, A.L. Swiggard, writes to remind us that "Josh Anderson is not the first. I don't know how many others, but let's go all the way back to November 18, 1956, when Robert Wayne Curry put a gun to his head and left most all who knew him in shock. He was a freshman then at Annandale High School in Fairfax County.
Bobby was caught smoking nicotine in the boy's bathroom by the assistant principal. He was berated and told he would go on automatic suspension. He blew himself away before his parents were notified.... As I remember Bobby, he was a sweet, silent, young teenager of no more than 13-14 years old. He was very shy and very nice and blushed at the slightest conversation from a member of the opposite sex.
Even though I did not know him well (just to board our school bus), I have mourned his death every time I passed his home in my old neighborhood. I always look and say a silent prayer toward the upper dormer of his former home.
I, too, was suspended one time for boarding a school bus to look at puppies (my weakness) back in those days. After horrible thoughts, I too wanted to die and took an overdose of aspirin (the whole bottle). Thankfully, that only made me extremely ill and I lost them sometime during the night and had a sour stomach for weeks afterward. There was no fear of me trying that again.
I will always remember Bobby and how I felt during my teenage years. I have dealt with my own teenagers and now my grandchildren since that time with a degree of understanding that Fairfax County has yet to comprehend. I write this in memory of Bobby and others like him not to condone, but to ask for reasonable understanding of the teenage mindset.
That seems right to me, but as we saw yesterday, opinions will vary. Yours are welcome below....
By Marc Fisher |
April 6, 2009; 9:47 AM ET
Previous: Did Zero Tolerance Rules Push Fairfax Teen To Edge? | Next: UDC: Does D.C. Really Need A 4-Year College?
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: wiredog | April 6, 2009 10:47 AM
Posted by: dubya19391 | April 6, 2009 11:09 AM
Posted by: amity5 | April 6, 2009 11:22 AM
Posted by: sheepherder | April 6, 2009 11:32 AM
Posted by: washpost4 | April 6, 2009 12:07 PM
Posted by: rosepetals64 | April 6, 2009 12:31 PM
Posted by: DonWhiteside | April 6, 2009 1:52 PM
Posted by: takebackourschools | April 6, 2009 2:17 PM
Posted by: skipper7 | April 6, 2009 2:44 PM
Posted by: takebackourschools | April 6, 2009 3:36 PM
Posted by: monniefournier | April 6, 2009 3:42 PM
Posted by: samwright2 | April 6, 2009 3:50 PM
Posted by: skipper7 | April 6, 2009 4:29 PM
Posted by: grunk | April 6, 2009 4:43 PM
Posted by: Nellie5 | April 6, 2009 5:53 PM
Posted by: reiflame1 | April 6, 2009 6:12 PM
Posted by: skipper7 | April 6, 2009 6:34 PM
Posted by: takebackourschools | April 6, 2009 7:10 PM
Posted by: skipper7 | April 6, 2009 8:07 PM
Posted by: xrendellx | April 7, 2009 3:53 PM
Posted by: amity5 | April 7, 2009 9:41 PM
Posted by: takebackourschools | April 8, 2009 9:43 AM
Posted by: yorkm | April 8, 2009 2:42 PM
Posted by: IrishRose | April 8, 2009 5:24 PM
Posted by: thinkpeople | April 8, 2009 9:38 PM
Posted by: Marc Fisher | April 9, 2009 10:08 AM
Posted by: Coriolanus | April 10, 2009 4:55 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.