Sunday, February 20, 2011


Out of Virginia, the tragic news that a teenager committed suicide, in part, apparently, over his despair about the discipline his school meted out to him over his purchase of a legal drug substitute. The Washington Post's Education blogger (I guess you'd call her) wrote of how the zero tolerance policy is counterproductive, even, so it seems in this case, destructive.

Fair enough. This very sad case seems to have some elements of the absurd.

So does much of school life, unfortunately. To wit, zero tolerance.

I agree that zero tolerance rules tend, on average, to be onerous and inflexible. The bind schools often find themselves in, though, is that flexibility in discipline, which any parent knows is required in child-rearing, will be challenged the moment a parent gets the idea that disciplinary decisions have generated different outcomes and therefore are unfair.

There are certainly kids in my school whom I discipline differently because I can discern regret, remorse, repentance, etc., and I know they've 'learned' just by our conversation. Other students, though, seem undaunted by even the prospect of 3-hour Friday detention after school.

For the sake of fairness (and not wanting to have to deal with the parents who'd cry foul), the easiest route is to implement completely even discipline--zero tolerance.

Also, though, what do you think the coverage would be like if the school had given a 'light' punishment to a student who then goes out and makes real trouble after being 'let off' by the school? This is why risk-management (i.e., lawsuit avoidance) is so powerful an idea (and dept.) in school and society

I don't like zero tolerance, but the schools (indeed, public agencies generally) are in a tough spot either way. Imagine trying to implement a 'some tolerance' policy, especially in an environment of low trust, as people now generally have for the schools.

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