When pupils get in trouble for silly reasons, the results can be serious
EARLIER this autumn a school in Canon City, Colorado suspended Hunter Yelton for violating its sexual-harassment policy. His crime? Kissing a girl on the hand. Hunter is six years old. Other dangerous acts that have warranted suspension in schools across the land include chomping a Pop-Tart (an American breakfast pastry) into the shape of a gun, firing an imaginary bow-and-arrow and talking about shooting a Hello Kitty soap-bubble gun. In Mississippi, infractions serious enough to bring in the police include wearing the wrong shoes (a five-year-old boy’s school dress code mandated black shoes; his mother used a marker to blacken his red-and-white shoes, but apparently bits of red and white could still be seen) and wearing the wrong socks. Five pupils tossing peanuts at each other in the back of a school bus ended up charged with felony assault when one of the nuts hit the driver.
Many of these students attend schools with zero-tolerance policies, which have been around for years; some date their inception to the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which required schools receiving federal funds to expel pupils who brought in firearms. According to John Whitehead, founding lawyer of the Rutherford Institute, a law firm focused on civil liberties, they really began proliferating after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Like the mandatory-minimum sentences established by Congress at the height of the drug war, zero-tolerance policies in schools were intended to make sure that all bad behaviour drew a uniform response. Instead, also like mandatory minimums, the responses they mandate are often wildly disproportionate to the “offences” committed; they do little, if anything, to improve discipline; and they can cause lasting harm to pupils.
In the 2009-10 school year, at least 3.1m of America’s 49.3m state-school pupils were suspended at least once. The Department of Education found that black pupils were three-and-a-half times likelier than whites to be suspended. More than 70% of pupils arrested in school or referred by schools to police were black or Hispanic. One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls were suspended, compared with fewer than one in 10 white boys and one in 20 white girls.
Suspension rates have gone up across the board since the early 1970s–from 3.7% of all pupils in 1973 to 6.9% in 2006–but far more for blacks (from 6% to 15%) than whites (3.1% to 4.8%). Whether or not these suspensions were accurately tied to misbehaviour in the past, they can certainly reinforce it in the future. Studies have shown that pupils suspended in sixth grade (roughly, at 12) are likelier than never-suspended pupils to receive the same punishment in eighth grade, and to drop out later.
Some schools, particularly in large cities, have started turning away from zero-tolerance laws. The American Civil Liberties Union wants federal money spent on “positive behaviour supports” designed to reduce suspensions, expulsions and calls to the police.
Mr Whitehead suggests something much simpler. Schools should complement zero-tolerance policies with some attempt to find out what the miscreant’s intentions were; and they should call in the police only as a last resort, and only in cases involving real weapons. Otherwise, he says, “you’re not teaching the kid anything except fear–fear of the police–which in a free country we shouldn’t do.”
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