Monday, December 5, 2016
According to local reports and the parents, an eleven-year-old honor roll student in Pembroke Pines, Florida, was suspended for six days when she used a children's knife to cut a peach and share it with a classmates. According to the family, the knife was as dull as a butter knife and was part of a set that looked something like this:
The girl's mother said that the knife is safe even for babies: “This is a set of a spoon, fork, and knife [is] for toddlers— one-year-old[s]. It is made for children to learn how to eat properly. She's used it since she was baby.”
With the media attention and the parents pushing back, the school reduced the suspension to three days, but they maintain the initial suspension was valid and it will remain on her record.
Unfortunately, this story is like countless others I describe in Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline. It is yet another example of the intolerability of zero tolerance policies and school officials refusing to consider very basic facts. On their face, the facts reveal 1) no real weapon; 2) no intent to break a rule; 3) no threat or danger to anyone; and 4) everyday benign behavior by a preteen. Based on these facts, it is far from clear that there is any legitimate basis upon which to suspend the student. It would appear that the basis for suspension is nothing more than "those are the rules."
That justification should be absurd enough on its face, but let me make it a bit clearer. Suppose that a school adopted the following rule: "students are prohibited from bringing black ink pens to school." There might be a good reason for the rule, such as the machine that the school uses to grade exams cannot distinguish students' black ink from that of the printed language on handouts. When students use black ink, it throws the whole grading system off. Thus, I would allow that schools could even take away those black ink pens for the day or, to encourage students to remember to not bring them, impose some small penalty like writing "I will not bring black pens to school" a couple hundred times.
Suspension, however, is a far cry worse. It would be hard to justify, under any concept of due process, the suspension of a student from bringing a black ink pen to school. Yet, this equivalent to the position this Florida school is adopting in suspending the girl for her children's butter knife. For that matter, under this current school's rationale, it could expel the student for the children's knife. Its rationale would likewise support expulsion for the black ink pen. Of course, the school would disavow this logical conclusion, but it is, in fact, the logic conclusion.
In Ending Zero Tolerance, I demonstrate why the constitution cannot permit this type of punishment and, instead, demands a more nuanced consideration of student misbehavior when school exclusion is at stake.
This story also offers another nuance to school discipline that I emphasize in the book: the physic harm that this type of irrational discipline imposes on the student. The girl's mother indicates that that her daughter is struggling to make sense of this experience and is afraid of making another mistake in school. Studies show that placing students in situations of fear and anxiety is not the way to make them behavior better. In fact, irrational discipline will make some rebel and misbehave more. Equally important, other studies show that fear and anxiety tends to spread to the "innocent bystanders" who have done nothing wrong and, when it does, it depresses their academic achievement--the exact opposite of what a school should want to do.