Friday, December 2, 2016
School Suspends a Student Who Was the Victim of Violence, Highlighting the Fundamental Flaws in Today's School Discipline
Just before Thanksgiving, a student in Mobile, Alabama, was violently attacked and harassed at school. He was corned and pummeled by a group of students. The school immediately suspended him for being in a fight. After he was suspended, a video of the incident surfaced on social media, showing he was actually just a victim and appeared to be doing nothing other than trying to get away. The video went viral, garnering millions of downloads and even a responsive video of support for the boy from Roy Jones, Jr.
Once the facts of the incident came to light and the media storm took hold, the district reversed course. The superintendent placed the principal who suspended the student on leave and is investigating the incident. The superintendent and others also came out on the day the boy returned to school to welcome him back, show him support, and assure him and others that bullying in the school was going to be addressed.
Kudos to the district for not digging its feet in the sand and showing signs of change, although I am not sure how it could have done otherwise. Regardless, like countless other stories, this one confirms the troubling lessons I offer in Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline. First, facts matter and zero tolerance is irrational. Blanket rules that mandate or authorize suspension for any student involved in a fight are indefensible. The same is true of various drug, weapon, disrespect and disruption rules. Courts should say so and begin forcing schools to use judgment and look at circumstances. Schools' refrain that they must "draw lines in the sand" just won't cut it.
Second, as it currently stands, due process protections in school discipline are not protections at all. For privacy reasons, we will probably never know exactly what steps the principal took prior to suspending this victim of violence in Mobile, but I find it hard to imagine that the principal asked many questions or paid much attention to the victim's story. In other words, the constitutional right to due process prior to suspension and expulsion is not worth much in our nation's schools any more. It has become a sham that allow schools to do whatever they want behind the window-dressing. I detail the data and events in my book that make this point clear.
Third, it was not the constitution that saved this boy, but a happenstance set of facts. So we should not delude ourselves into thinking the system worked here. I detail another story in the book, which is far more troubling from a procedural point. It involved a principal and the rest of the school administration effectively colluding against a young boy and it was only the happenstance revelation of that collusion that reversed the suspension, not any reliable constitutional protection that others who follow might rely on. In other words, as currently applied, our constitution hangs students out to dry.
Ending Zero Tolerance proposes a more nuanced approach to school discipline that accounts for individual circumstances, the natural development of children, and the quality of the educational environment itself. In short, it proposes that school discipline begin to make sense.