Domestic Diversions

Zero tolerance

The New York Times highlights the zero-tolerance policies adopted by many schools and the growing number of suspensions.

Jane Gordon writes (excerpt):
Some administrators said they weren’t thrilled with the zero-tolerance trend, but said it is sometimes a struggle for teachers to keep control of their classrooms.

“I think it’s a horrific practice except in extreme cases when we remove the child from harming himself or harming his classmates,” said Dr. Doris Kurtz, the superintendent of schools in New Britain. “But education comes under attack when you do, and when you don’t. Many schools don’t have the means to deal with these kids. The principal can’t sit there and babysit children all day, there are no in-school suspension rooms and someone to watch over them, there is a severe lack of resources. So they suspend them, because sometimes it’s the only avenue.

“The other kids have rights, and parents want to see their children being educated,” she said. “Some children come with problems and issues so severe, even at very young ages, they disrupt the whole school setting.”

And it’s not just urban schools that are struggling with discipline. New Fairfield schools have had more expulsions in the first couple of months of this school year than in any of the five full years that Dr. Kathleen Matusiak has been superintendent.

“A lot of the issues have to do with bringing weapons – box cutters, knives – to school, not necessarily with an intention to hurt,” Dr. Matusiak said. “Some have involved alcohol and drugs, poor judgment. We have clearly articulated conduct codes that don’t tolerate those things in our schools. Our schools are for teaching and learning.”

Zero tolerance first appeared as the name of a 1986 program that impounded boats carrying drugs. In 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act became law and called for a student to be expelled for one full year for carrying a firearm to school. Schools broadened the policy, using the same severe disciplinary measures for varying degrees of behavior.

“A lot of this has to do with kids who are very undisciplined, especially at the urban schools, where the children haven’t received discipline at home,” said Susan Patrick of the Governor’s Prevention Partnership, a nonprofit anti-drug-abuse organization. “It’s very complicated and messy. I’m in agreement with zero tolerance for keeping dangerous weapons out of school, but the extension of it, to broadly address disruptive behaviors, I don’t agree with that at all.”

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