We’ve all heard of “zero tolerance” and I think we’ve discussed it here before. I think at this point, most people think it’s a disaster waiting to happen. This hit home for me recently.
Let’s start with a little background. A boy I know – let’s call him Paul – is a truly amazing kid. I noticed he was exceptionally smart by the time he was 14 months old, effortlessly assembling complex puzzles meant for 3+-year-olds, etc. When he was 5, I overheard him fluently reading “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (with the correct rhythm, intonation, etc.) and when I said something about it, he said “I love poetry, because I can illustrate it.” From that time on, every time I heard him speak, it sounded like he was reciting from a dictionary. I am not even kidding.
Not surprisingly, Paul stood out a bit in the crowd, so his mom took great pains to help him get lots of social stimulation and work on making friends. He joined the Cub Scouts and then Boy Scouts, and by middle school had achieved an exceptional rank for his age. He was also active in church, became a member in his own right, and still plays in the bell choir every Sunday. He is still “nerdy,” but he has good friends, and as far as I know, he hasn’t tended to make enemies.
There’s no point talking about his impeccable academic record, but besides that, he’s had excellent school attendance and never had a discipline problem at school. The only reason his principal knew him was because he was the most exceptional student they had academically, and had been accepted into a highly competitive and challenging high school program. Note that this is not a “spoiled rich brat” situation; his parents are modest, middle-class folks and he goes to public school in a relatively poor school system.
A couple of weeks ago, Paul was in science class working on his science project. A classmate tossed something at him and he tossed it back. Then the classmate came and busted up Paul’s science project. Paul pushed back physically. In his hand was a 5” long, thin, soft piece of rubber which he had been working with, and with which the other boy was “hit.” Paul left the fight with damaged glasses and a black eye. The other boy was not visibly harmed. Both boys were sent to the principal.
The principal took the boys’ statements (the teacher was not a witness, as she had not been watching). Based on the boys’ statements, the principal determined a “weapon” had been used. The “zero tolerance” weapons policy required a 10-day suspension and referral for an expulsion hearing. The other boy was not threatened with expulsion, since a “fist” is not considered a weapon.
So at the hearing, Paul’s dad demonstrated how the piece of rubber could not have been a weapon under any circumstance. Paul’s mom gave a statement and also read letters from past teachers, etc., all saying what a good kid Paul is. Representatives from Paul’s church and scout troop spoke on Paul’s behalf, as did the school psychologist. The principal didn’t show up, but the assistant principal admitted that (a) nobody had witnessed the altercation, and (b) nobody had seen the alleged weapon, as it had been disposed of by the custodian (after all it was just a scrap of rubber). He also stated that the school wanted Paul to come back. On the way out of the hearing, the assistant principal stated to Paul’s parents that the outcome was expected to be good.
Fast forward a few days, and the following two choices were presented to the parents: (1) Expulsion, with Paul being transferred to a magnet school for the rest of the year. (2) Home instruction for the remainder of the term, which would not go on the record as an expulsion (and hopefully would not prevent Paul from attending the advanced HS program next year). The family chose (2) because they didn’t want an expulsion on Paul’s record. Technically they could appeal, but that would take time and money. They could make a big stink and expose this outrage, but then if someone decided to be vindictive, that could make things harder for Paul in HS. Paul will do fine with home instruction, but it’s not what he or his parents wanted. He just wanted to go back to school after his suspension (which was already kind of harsh by itself).
Right now there is a father home sick from work, sick to his stomach about the injustice and the outrage that his young son just had to go through, and his inability to prevent it. A boy who does not understand why his school turned against him in this way. A mom who needs to figure out how to arrange home instruction during her work week and how to keep her son from being socially isolated for the next 2+ months.
Myself, I am simply shocked that the result was so unreasonable. I guess I never really thought this could happen to a kid who had never before been so much as sent to the principal, not ever. When by all accounts, he was more a victim than anything else.
It goes without saying that if I, or any of my siblings, had attended school under these circumstances, we all would have been thrown out. And we were considered “good” students.
So I don’t know, is there anything we should do? It seems wrong to just sit and say “sorry for your trouble.” Like I said at the beginning, we all know “zero tolerance” is stupid, but what can we do about it?