COLUMN: We need zero tolerance for certain zero-tolerance policies
Heather Brown, The Oklahoma Daily
When in grade school in the 1990s, I, like many children, had a sneaking suspicion that many of the arbitrary and archaic rules I had to follow were put in place maliciously, just to make school awful. It felt as if Pink Floyd had written "The Wall" just for my classmates and me. We received a good education while learning through experience that teachers and administrators could be every bit as vindictive and prone to prejudgment as our playground enemies.
As an adult looking back, I see I had mistaken detached incompetence for maliciousness in the way our schools are run. There is a drive to make an education a “one size fits all” affair, and unfortunately the kids who just don’t fit are marginalized and excluded, often by both teachers and students alike.
Of course, if I had known how much worse things were going to get, I’d have just shut my spoiled little mouth and done my lessons. Today, in what I then imagined would be a much more competent and technologically advanced future (based largely on Hollywood’s projections), common sense appears to be completely absent in the administration of our public school system.
The complaints are too many to list in one sitting. Between a few examples like implementation of policies like No Child Left Behind, legislation targeting science classrooms, teacher-student sex scandals and absurd wardrobe regulations, I honestly fear the next generation of Americans is going to be too uneducated and screwed up to function.
Lately, the issue in the public eye is a string of suspensions and expulsions stemming from “zero-tolerance” policies concerning guns in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings.
Consider the 5-year-old in Pennsylvania who was suspended from kindergarten in January for making “terroristic threats.” The little terrorist was suspended for two days and forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation for threating a classmate with a pink Hello Kitty gun that shoots bubbles.
Or my personal favorite, the 7-year-old Maryland boy who was suspended this month for chewing his Pop-Tart into the shape of a pistol in the school lunch room.
As both a former 7-year-old boy and a notorious chewer of Pop-Tarts into various shapes, I can personally attest to the immediate danger this child poses to those around him. That strawberry filling is hot, and if imaginarily fired into a crowd, the imaginary damage could be unprecedented.
And then there’s the fracas last week about the Michigan third-grader who had an army-themed birthday party and brought cupcakes to school with little green army men on them. As you can imagine, the army men were confiscated and the parents were called immediately. Surely this was done out of concern for the little green army men, who would no doubt have died horrible deaths on the playground after lunch.
While these are all semi-amusing examples of Sandy Hook related overreactions and idiocy, there’s one case that really highlights the actual dangers of zero-tolerance policies and the need to alter the course our education system is on.
Courtni Webb, a 17-year-old high school student in San Francisco, wrote a poem about Sandy Hook that got her suspended. In the poem, she acknowledges that she understands the loneliness and misery that drove the shooter to want to force his problems on his community. I have read and re-read the poem, and I cannot find a place where she endorses or sympathizes with the shooter. Rather, she empathizes with him. It’s a pretty clear cry for help, and rather than address the content of the poem constructively with Webb, the school suspended her and the incident will be on her educational records permanently.
Here is a 17-year-old saying she gets so lonely and feels so excluded that she can understand a person coming to the conclusion with which she ends her poem: “Misery loves company / If I can’t be loved then no one can.” The response? More exclusion in the name of “zero-tolerance.”
It’s ironic that in the place where reading comprehension and understanding context are taught, the administration intentionally excludes the same comprehension and context when reading a student’s work. Things like this make it so I can’t have a glass-top desk. I’d put my forehead right through it.
Hopefully all of our education majors here at OU, the future teachers and administrators of our public school system, will learn from these failures and bring the common sense and compassion back to our nation’s classrooms.
Trent Cason is an English literary and cultural studies senior