I made the mistake recently of thinking that homeschoolers would, like I do, dislike zero tolerance policies in schools. Turns out I was wrong. And worse, I was doing something I hate, which is that assuming that because someone agrees with me about one thing (in this case, homeschooling) that they’ll agree with me about something else (what’s wrong with how schools are run). In politics, this drives me particularly crazy. For example, if you support gay rights you must also be for gun control. Honestly, what do these issues have to do with one another other than being together on one party’s platform? Thinking things like that must go together seems like another example of our poor logical thinking as a society.
Well, that was a bit of an aside. What I really wanted to write about was how one of the many reasons I can’t imagine sending my kids to school is what happened to schools in the post-Columbine world. When Columbine happened, I was in the middle of my student teaching rotation at HB Woodlawn in Arlington, VA. This is an odd public school where the kids have the power to run the school through a democratic town meeting format and free time is generally taken to be free. Kids wander the halls and have off-periods where they’re expected to leave campus or do schoolwork as they please. As you can imagine, in a school like that, the post-Columbine fallout was minimal. However, in the rest of the country it was nuclear and the fallout is still being felt in most places. Check out this interview from Salon the other day with Aaron Kupchik, author of a new book about school security.
For me, it’s not just the way that zero tolerance policies seem to defy common sense when they get kindergarteners suspended for hugging or first graders for having cub scout camping gear. Some people seem to think we could simply write better rules and fix the problem. I disagree. I think the problem is two-fold. First, you rob teachers and administrators of the ability to make meaningful decisions. Laws shouldn’t tell a doctor or a psychologist which diagnoses and treatments are mandated if a patient presents a certain symptom. It’s understood that these are professionals and that there are many appropriate courses of treatment for a problem. But teachers aren’t considered professionals. Many of them don’t act like it anyway, but that’s another story. As it is, they’re not trusted to go off script in many places, much less use even an iota of common sense if they see a kid do anything that might not follow the letter of the law. I fail to understand how any good can come of the adults who know children the best not being involved in the decision making for them. What message does that send to kids?
Second these policies rob students of respect. This is the government they’re living under and yet, because they’re under the age of eighteen, they don’t get anywhere near the full spectrum of rights under the constitution. Due process, free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to privacy, freedom against search and seizure – these are practically laughable in public schools. As a high school student, I fought for my right to free speech, and through some miracle managed to win in an out of court settlement that protected my underground newspaper. However, since I was in school, the Supreme Court and the states have continued to erode students’ rights. How do we expect students to become informed, responsible citizens when they live under a government regime that has no respect for their rights?
In the end, I feel like it comes down to the fact that zero tolerance means zero justice. Justice is not following the law to the letter. That’s why we have judges and due process in the first place. Justice is beyond the law. It’s a concept I hope my kids grow up to understand, just like I hope they learn their rights and feel free to defend them. And that makes it yet another one of the reasons we homeschool.