Friday, October 16, 2009

Zero Tolerance = Zero Sense

Zero tolerance has been variously defined as:
  1. A "get tough" policy of making no exceptions in regards to a particular (usually criminal or undesirable) matter, born as a response to a general sense of uneven application of rules and punishments. To react to a proscribed activity or substance with absolute prejudice... Without regard to mitigating circumstances or conditions.

  2. Authoritarian rule system whereby breaking of the rules is taken very seriously and punishment is overly severe to get the message through.

  3. A common phrase referring all lack of being able to tolerate something. Often a policy referring to various rules to increase strictness and banish all regard for anything against the zero tolerance policy.

  4. A policy, usually by American schools that any reference to a gun, violence, or drugs will get you expelled automatically with no trial.
You can read more on the history of the concept here.
Since the 1980s the phrase zero tolerance has signified a philosophy toward illegal conduct that favors strict imposition of penalties regardless of the individual circumstances of each case. ... Critics of zero tolerance believe that inflexible discipline policies produce harmful results. Moreover, school administrators have failed to use common sense in applying zero tolerance, leading to the expulsion of children for bringing to school such items as an aspirin or a plastic knife.
I have a friend who rightfully likes to note that common sense is the least most common sense of all. And that last statement about school administrators failing to use common sense in applying zero tolerance could probably win an award for the understatement of the year.

A six-year-old was suspended ordered to spend 45 days at his school district's "alternative school for troublemakers" after he brought a combination folding fork, knife and spoon to eat his lunch at his Delaware school last month.
The knife is banned as a dangerous instrument under the Christina School District’s zero-tolerance policy, which officials said required them to expel Zachary or send him to the equivalent of reform school regardless of his age or what he planned to do with the utensil.
But don't worry he's in good company - a fifth-grader in the same school district was expelled last year for bringing a birthday cake and a serrated knife to cut it with. In that case, perhaps, common sense prevailed; the expulsion was overturned.

The Board isn't too worried though. They seem to think they have it under control. They're prepared to consider a narrow change that wold affect only kindergartners and first-graders and allow for [wait for it] three to five day suspensions rather than mandating harsher punishments.

That's right, boys and girls, apparently the solution to 5 or 6 year old bringing his camping utensils to class is a 3 to 5 day suspension. As opposed to being expelled. Because that's compassion. That's common sense.

And these are the people we entrust with the care, teaching and discipline of our children? What does that make us - as crazy as them?

But sadly for all of us, there's more to this than just the obvious insanity. In theory, Nova Scotia has recognized [See pages 2 & 3 of the link] it's disparate impact (or some might say, stupidity) and it's harmful effects and thus, does not have a zero tolerance policy.

Notice I said "in theory". In reality, students are being suspended or otherwise punished for behaviour for which is a result of their disability. Behaviour over which they have little, if any, control.

Anybody remember this story? About the Digby teacher who permitted encouraged his students to hit a child with Down's Syndrome. As a way to "teach" him not to hit his classmates. And I am aware of more than a few other instances in this fine Province where students with special needs have been punished (in some cases up to the point of multiple suspensions) for behaviour which is caused by or related to their disability.

I am all for challenged children learning self-discipline. But that can be a long slow process. For which many times teaching appropriate behaviour as opposed to punishment is much better suited.

But consider this: Would you suspend a child with verbal Tourette Syndrome for shouting out inappropriate comments in a classroom? Would you punish a blind child for walking into a wall?

Don't be ridiculous. Such a thing would never happen, you say? Go back and reread the fate of the six-year-old above. Are you so sure?

And although a child with Tourette or who is blind are more obvious examples, is there really any difference between those scenarios and suspending an autistic child (for example) for her behaviour? As opposed to developing an appropriate program and behavioural interventions for the child?

And don't let anyone say it can't be done. For proof otherwise, we need only look to the US.
On the positive side, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is viewed by many in the United States as a sound legal framework for accommodating students with disabilities within the school system, including in the application of discipline. The purpose of the Act is to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services to meet their unique needs.

The provisions on discipline in the Act flow from this principle. First, a child with a disability who is removed from school must still have access to educational services. Second, a child with a disability cannot be removed from a regular school placement indefinitely. And third, a child whose behaviour was a manifestation of disability must be accommodated.
Golly gee, what a good idea. Think there's any chance it might just catch on here?

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