How can we get the porridge just right?
You hit a teacher; you deal drugs in school; you refuse to sit when told to sit- You are so out of here! Wait, I was alright with this list until you got to that last one. I am a fan of zero tolerance. Truly, I have zero tolerance for drugs, aggression and violence in public school classrooms. I feel the same way about private school classrooms. That doesn’t mean I have zero tolerance for the kids, just the behaviors. I think those behaviors are better addressed in a special self-contained program where we can get to the “why” of the behavior rather than just punish the manifestation of the why. But in today’s imperfect world, the common wisdom is that all children need to be fully included. So zero tolerance became the only weapon in the arsenal of defense to make the schools as safe as possible.
But as with any power, sometimes the powerful get carried away with themselves and their power. Educators began to have zero tolerance for any behaviors of non-compliance. So if a student gets a bit smart mouthed, throw the bum out. If a kid refuses to obey a teacher directive, send that kid home. Before long we were running programs where the class size was 25.6 (I’ll leave it to you to figure out the point 6) but the students in attendance might be closer to 20. This situation was more likely to happen in communities of color and/or lower socio-economic status where parents didn’t push back.
Then came the community push back along with catchy phrases. The school to prison road was paved with school suspensions. We needed justice restored. As is usually the case in education, Justice Restored became no consequences of any magnitude at all. We went from “just watch me suspend you” to no suspensions at all. Children quickly caught on. They could do whatever they wanted. A quick “sorry note” or an I’m sorry comment got them off the hook for bad behavior and all was good to go.
Of course, the notion that we were teaching kids that they could act with impunity and not expect any real consequences was a very bad life lesson. In some ways, it was maybe a detour but still a road from school to prison, this time paved with excuse making and excuses that don’t fly once a student is out of school.
In fairness, students who behave poorly are a minority of the kids in any school, even the schools with a significant minority of high risk children. Truth is most kids just want to learn, have friends and get through. For many kids, school is their one safe place out of the neighborhood.
So what happens to these appropriately behaved kids and the teachers who are trying desperately to teach them. That is simple. Some of those kids are so frightened by the acting out behaviors that research has shown test scores are lower for kids in these classes. Absentee rates were 1.42 percent higher for the well behaved kids in those classrooms than in classes in the same community but with no acting out behaviors.
So what is the answer? Serve the porridge blazing hot and no one gets suspended no matter what. Serve it ice cold, so it can be like revenge which is better served cold. Or perhaps we could actually make decisions about individual behavior and not have one response for all kids. Kids exhibiting extreme behaviors need to be in special programs with extra supports in place and smaller classes so the behaviors do not contaminate other kids. Kids with disrespectful behaviors need consequences for those behaviors as well. They need to be required to make the situation whole. That is real justice restored. And as with Goldilocks, the porridge would be just right.