There must be some schools in New York City that adhere to the zero tolerance policy. The New York Times, Huffington Post, and dozens of blog posts list examples of instances in which schools seem forced to mete out automatic consequences for seemingly tiny infractions. Many of the blog posts, and even articles from reputable news outlets, have their own agendas. They blame zero tolerance for the increased suspensions in the past decade, the perceived evil of school safety officers (trained and paid by the NYPD), and general mayhem in the schools. I can understand arguments against the NYPD in schools and Bloomberg’s meddling into affairs he clearly doesn’t understand and a policy that doesn’t work and probably does damage. At the same time, I think the balance of safety and consequences in schools should not be an issue used to further these agendas. It’s an issue that warrants thoughtful consideration, trial and error, and open-mindedness in its own right.
I have not personally seen any evidence of the zero tolerance policy in my three schools during seven years of teaching, and I haven’t heard a peep about it from a dozen teachers I helped train. I’ve been physically assaulted in each of the three schools in which I’ve taught. In most of these circumstances, the students who pushed me, hit me, or threw projectiles at me returned to my class without consequences of any sort. All three administrations urged me not to file incident reports. Students in two schools issued death threats against me. They were not yuckety-yuck threats, but pointed and somewhat detailed threats. One of those students came to school a few days later with a zip gun (which made it past the metal detectors). Both of them returned to my classroom (one after a week-long suspension). Students frequently screamed expletives at me for reminding them of the city policy about texting during class, for applying rubrics to their work, or for suggesting they take out their notebooks and writing implements. As a rookie, I brought concerns about these outbursts to administrators. They reacted with blank stares and the question, “So?”
This may seem like I’m calling frightening situations to myself, but the fact is that they’re commonplace issues in many NYC high schools. While I was uneasy about the volatile student returning to my classroom without more reflection on the danger they created, the administration didn’t act strongly in these situations because there were more perilous situations awaiting their attention. I’m talking about ninth-graders calling in cousins and parents and uncles to beat down rival ninth-graders. I’m talking about the situation that gave the “boom-boom room” its name. (I will never get the mental image out of my head. Ew.) I’m talking about gang wars coming into the classroom. In a climate that penalizes schools for excessive suspensions (or at least scrutinizes them and makes principals nervous), school administrators work very hard to keep suspensions to a minimum.
After working in two schools that made a handful of suspensions each year and one school that suspended over 10% of its student body on a yearly basis, I am not so quick to point to the zero tolerance policy when thinking about the impact of suspensions and discipline in schools. As I’ve said, I didn’t see any evidence of the zero tolerance policy in any of these schools. I can’t even say that school safety officers were a root. Most of the time, school safety officers served as trusted big brothers to students who needed role models. In the few circumstances in which they broke up fights, it was a godsend, because teachers who know the system know that they can get sued for trying to pry two students apart and they will not be protected by the union if they are injured while trying to break up a fight.
When I look at the schools and the perilous situations in which students and teachers find themselves on a daily basis, I don’t start with my own agenda. Many of my students felt like nieces and nephews, and they deserve more than serving as a salvo to fire at my opponents. Their safety and well-being are important to me, and I don’t want dangerous people near them. Neither do I want them to develop violent ways of dealing with frustration. I find one common root in the epidemic of violence in the schools: lack of accountability. If we don’t expect our students to manage conflict positively and we don’t give them the tools to do it adequately, the suspensions and dangerous conflicts will increase. Many of my students were pushed to violence. At home, their parents often criticized them if they didn’t stand up for themselves. They came from communities that required a concrete façade. Any show of weakness could end in violence. For many of my kids, it was inconceivable to think that words could correct wrongs to reputations, or that compromise could be anything but backing down like a sissy. It took a great deal of time and effort for them to start to see that words could stop a situation from ending in suspension or a criminal record.
I’ve seen some schools plant the seed for restorative justice, and that seems to be a promising practice to help schools rein in scary situations. By bringing the most conflictive kids together and finding a way to communicate constructively, we can teach them to take ownership of the positive results of their interventions. That will spur them to spread the message about conflict management and practice it in other areas of their lives. In order to work, restorative justice must start school-by-school and student-by-student. Although I’d love to see a district-wide policy to use restorative justice models, it would require dedicated staff at each school and a great deal of time. It would probably have the same result as zero tolerance unless each school internalized the need to redefine responsibility for conflict and methods to manage it. In short, trying to enforce the use of the practice uniformly across 1,700 schools with different personalities, structures, and temperaments, that policy would fail just as zero tolerance has.
There are many reasons to call for Bloomberg to bugger off from our schools and stop maligning teachers. I personally appreciate the school safety officers, but I can see why people who don’t know them could object to their presence in the schools. The zero tolerance policy, if uniformly practiced, would be pretty horrible and worthy of overturning. Using the danger that exists in many NYC classrooms as a pretext for furthering one of these agendas, though, seems silly to me. Bloomberg will not stop doing damage to our kids’ futures until he leaves office, school safety officers will probably be in schools for a while, and zero tolerance as a policy and paradigm will have to run its course. The use of students’ and teachers’ safety as a tool for furthering these agendas simply stops people from solving the problem of violence in schools. I urge stakeholders in education to make safety its own issue and divorce it from pre-determined agenda items. The safety of one million students and 135,000 full-time employees is worth more than making a barb against an opponent.