Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Students too often schooled in cynicism

By Hannah Sparks

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 1994, Congress passed a law requiring that any student who brings a firearm into a school face a one-year expulsion and laid the groundwork for today’s “zero-tolerance” school disciplinary policies. Growing out of the war on drugs and strengthening in response to school shootings, these policies were designed to keep elementary, middle and high school students safe by keeping weapons and drugs out of schools. For a time, troubled schools became safer places. Twenty years later, however, school districts nationwide are reevaluating these policies as more and more students face fines, probation and arrests for nonviolent behavior previously handled internally.

“Zero-tolerance” refers to the fact that no matter the extenuating circumstances or how innocent a mistake it was, any infraction of a rule will bring about disciplinary action. Keeping drugs and guns out of schools is common sense, but current incarnations of the policy seem to be anything but. Ibuprofen, butter knives, theater props and merely gesturing “finger pistols” during recess has incurred the wrath of paranoid administrators and led to suspensions and expulsions despite the fact that none of these objects pose any more danger than a lacrosse stick or a fist.

A 10-year-old girl expelled for packing a small knife with her lunch in order to cut an apple. A 12-year-old boy forced to pay fines, do community service and serve four months of probation after a small scuffle. Otherwise well-behaved teenage girls expelled and sent to juvenile boot camps for bringing mixed drinks to lunch.

These kids may have broken the rules, but they’re hardly juvenile delinquents and they definitely do not belong in the criminal justice system. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder have issued a report that advises school administrators to pursue these strict modes of punishment only as a last resort.

Those policies have far-reaching negative consequences: Removing students from school for nonviolent behavior and introducing them to the criminal justice system hurts their chances of graduating high school, let alone getting into college, entering the military or landing a job. The experience can embitter them and lead them to live a life of actual crime.

Zero-tolerance doesn’t discipline students – it ruins them. And that’s not what our schools should be aiming to do.

Zero-tolerance is based on the same ideology that is at the foundation of the U.S. prison-industrial complex. The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth, and the rate of incarceration has more than quadrupled since 1980, mostly due to harsher drug sentencing laws. According to the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, the most serious charge against 51 percent of federal prison inmates is a drug offense, whereas only one percent of federal inmates are in prison for murder. More than two-thirds of prisoners reoffend, so the expensive business of incarcerating millions of people isn’t even an effective way to rehabilitate criminals or deter crime, which is the whole point.

Why should we bring this unsuccessful system of discipline into schools? Throwing more people into the criminal justice system, especially so early, spells disaster for society, and should, as Duncan and Holder advise, only be used as a last resort. For many even misbehaved students, school represents their best chance for a better life, which is something we should value. With this in mind, a few states, like Texas and Florida, have adopted laws that allow school principals to exercise discretion and consider the extenuating circumstances in situations that would have been handled at the zero-tolerance chopping block in the past.

On the opposite spectrum of school discipline, numerous colleges and universities across the nation are facing Title IX and other federal investigations for failing to respond adequately to reports of sexual assault on their campuses. Many of the colleges are accused of creating hostile environments for survivors and for handing out disproportionately lame punishments to those perpetrators that are actually found guilty by internal disciplinary boards. Think book reports and apology letters, like at Occidental College, which is under investigation for Title IX violations.

This strange dichotomy defies reason: Children are arrested for acting like, well, children, albeit mischievous ones. Their mistakes are criminalized and dealt with by the police, rather than by the principal. Meanwhile, adult-aged rapists – many of them repeat offenders – walk around campus, dangerous and undetected. Their crimes are handled by internal review boards, rather than by police, despite the fact that their actions are definitely criminal.

In neither case do schools have the best interests of their students at heart and it doesn’t make sense until you consider the money and the press involved. PR-conscious colleges don’t want to lose face or funds, so they sweep controversies under the rug. Elementary, middle and high schools benefit from appearing “tough on crime,” and furthermore, really have no practical interest in keeping troubled kids in their classrooms. It’s a sad state of affairs for a branch of our society meant to instill children with knowledge and teach them right from wrong. Instead, our society’s children are receiving an education in cynicism.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Students too often schooled in cynicism”

  1. N. on January 22nd, 2014 4:20 pm

    so your answer to ‘cynicism’ is that prison – and all the assumptions about power, punishment and criminality that go with it – is great, but only if you put the ‘right’ people there? alleged offenders are “definitely criminal” – is this where “zero tolerance” and unchecked, one-sided powers of arbitrary and life-destroying punishment are a ‘good’ thing?

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