Schools administrators design zero-tolerance policies to eliminate acts of violence before they happen.
Yet these policies dramatically affect children who are unaware that some bad behavior can damage their academic career and in extreme cases gain them a criminal record.
Six-year-old students were suspended in Maryland for saying “pow” and pointing their fingers in gun-like gestures . A Pennsylvania kindergartener received a 10-day suspension for telling friends she would shoot them with her Hello Kitty soap-bubble gun. In Ohio, a 16-year-old autistic student was arrested for trying to sell a sugar mixture packet to fellow students at the school.
These are just a few examples of the punishments students are facing for what some would call “kids just being kids.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, zero tolerance is defined as, “A school or district policy that mandates predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offences.” This idea grew out of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which Congress enacted as a response to an increase in weapons seen or fired in schools.
But the broad understanding and usage of the policy continues to pose problems today.
“I think people are more hyper vigilant about [zero tolerance policies], about anything that may signal possible violence,” said Hope Hill, associate professor of psychology at Howard University.
“But the reality is that we have to use common sense, too.”
Schools seem to have missed the mark with acceleration in suspension and expulsion due to recent mass shootings and homicides, possibly doing more harm than good for the kids they’re trying to protect. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Conn.,, teachers and parents alike seem to have a heightened awareness of the potential for danger.
“The real issue is that zero tolerance policies were operative before Sandy Hook, however, Sandy Hook put us all on notice that the element of safety in our schools, especially in terms of unpredictable violence, can never be taken for granted,” Hill said.
Fred Loran, a first-year middle school teacher at Ernest Everett Just Middle School in Prince Georges County, Md., agrees that zero-tolerance policies should be enforced in the classroom when it comes to the physical safety of his kids.
He thinks that punishments should depend on the severity of the situation, though he takes a no-nonsense approach toward guns.
“I don’t allow certain behaviors in my classroom, like making a gun with your hands or something even if they’re just playing,” Loran said.
But zero tolerance can present outside issues for children in class.
According to a 2008 study by the American Psychological Association, “Zero tolerance policies may also have increased the use of proï¬ling, a method of prospectively identifying students who may be at risk of committing violence or disruption by comparing their proï¬les to those of others who have engaged in such behavior in the past.”
“Such proï¬les tend to over-identify students from minority populations as potentially dangerous despite the fact that no minority students were involved in the most prominent late-1990s school shootings,” the study reported.
Hill said that African American boys are disproportionately suspended.
“In some school districts, there are policies that weigh two things: Whether or not the youth has actually done something of a threatening nature, so it’s really clear cut things that a kid has to do in part one to be suspended,” she said.
“But part two, pertains to how threatened teachers feel having that student in their presence, and that’s very subjective criteria,” she continued.
Some lawmakers like Maryland Republican State Sen. J.B. Jennings are trying to make zero tolerance in schools disappear. He has introduced the Reasonable School Discipline Act of 2013 or Bill 1058 after an incident in which a Maryland seven year old was suspended for two days after biting a Pop-Tart he was eating into the shape of a gun.
“These kids can’t comprehend what they are doing or the ramifications of their actions,” Jennings told the Star Democrat. “These suspensions are going on their permanent records and could have lasting effects on their educations.”
There is an issue regarding how children are handled in the school system in regards to reference and the solutions are not clear-cut. Perhaps the emotional and social status of children should be examined additionally in an academic setting to truly help rectify violent situations.
“If we’re going to focus more on the back end of kids with weapons, then it’s going to deprive us on putting much of our attention at the front end, with the prevention,” Hill said.