Wednesday, May 10, 2017
A school district in Alabama recently expelled "Laney" Nichols for an entire year. Her crime—having a water gun on campus. One of her male friends brought the water gun to school, but handed it off to Nichols at some point. Nichols carried it in her backpack before eventually leaving it in the backseat of her car. Apparently, another student saw the water gun and thought it was real. When the student alerted school officials, things got serious.
The school initially suspended her for 10 days—arguably an overreaction itself. But the school later decided that was not enough because Nichols brought a “firearm” to school. That, the school reasoned, justified expelling her for a year.
Nichols’ mother is threatening to sue. She understands the school has to take all guns seriously because you never know what might happen. But as soon as school officials touched the water gun, she says they would have known there was absolutely no threat to anyone—save a little water in the eye.
Interestingly, Nichol’s first claim is gender decimation. The boy who brought the gun and another who played with it only received in-school suspension. If accurate, these allegations would raise federal anti-discrimination concerns and could be a winning argument. The school, however, will likely respond that Nichols’ behavior was more serious in some way or that their evidence regarding the boys was weaker. While those distinctions may seem minimal in the real word, they are often enough to uphold a school discipline decision.
To the average observer, Nichol’s second claim— that the water gun is not a firearm under school board policy—may sound like a no-brainer. The facts seem pretty clear on this score. The question is whether it matters. The Supreme Court in Wood v. Strickland rejected two high school students’ attempt to attack their expulsion on technical grounds. The students had spiked the punch at an after-school event, but argued that the alcohol content was so dilute in the punch that it did not qualify as an alcoholic beverage under state law. They were probably right. None of the parents even noticed the alcohol.
The Court, however, was quick to dismiss the case, reasoning that schools have wide discretion in interpreting and applying their own rules. Schools, unlike law enforcement, do not have to spell out every little detail in their rules or follow them precisely. For that matter, they may not even need rules. Schools have discretion to discipline students based on their judgment. Some state law could prove more helpful to Nichols, but all of these arguments miss the fundamental problem of school discipline in the age of zero tolerance.
For nearly three decades, schools, lawyers, and communities have gotten caught up in questions of what the rules say and whether a student broke them. Anyone who has kids or works in school can tell you that rule-breaking is part of everyday life. Students are in the process of maturing, which includes testing boundaries, forgetting boundaries, getting caught up in the moment, or just not thinking at all. If we tossed kids out every time them broke a rule, we would not have any kids left to teach.
So forget the facts and rules for a moment. The question is not whether Nichols brought a water gun to school or some other students played with it. Those sets of facts will repeat themselves over and over again, so long as kids are kids. The important question is how adults respond. Zero tolerance and other harsh discipline polices absolve adults from seriously thinking about how they should respond. As a result, those policies get that question of how to discipline a student wrong more often than they get it right.
As I examine in Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline, determining the appropriate punishment requires adults to think about more than whether the student broke a rule. It requires them to think about the student’s age, motivation, personal circumstances, just how serious the behavior actually was, and the range of options that they have for dealing with the behavior.
Coming down hard on students like Nichols is about little more than sending a message to students. The trouble is that the message does not deal with Nichols, or any other students, in a way that actually improves behavior or safety. When zero tolerance policies were first taking hold, a Tennessee school district expelled a student for having a knife in his car. The knife was not his and he did not know it was there. When sued, the school conceded both facts, but said it had to “draw a line in the sand” when it came to weapons. The court responded that it was irrational to punish students for accidentally violating school rules because it did not make anyone safer.
Removing suspension and expulsion from the range of options for students like Nichols does not mean schools cannot punish misbehavior. It does not mean that the school is condoning weapons or encouraging more. And suspending and expelling students like Nichols will not stop others from engaging in the adolescent behavior that is part and parcel of growing up. All it will do is punish students for the sake of punishment.
When schools lose sight of these distinctions, they fall into reactionary traps. They stop thinking about how to actually improve student behavior. When they do that, they undermine everyone’s education and safety, not just the suspended and expelled students.