“School discipline policies and practices emerge in political contexts and result in negotiation among conflicting aspects of democracy. For example, the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) was originally passed in 1994 and reauthorized in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) in the wake of several high profile shootings in public schools. The provisions of NCLB that address school violence reflect society’s belief that the common good requires ensuring the safety of its members. The bill articulates a ‘zero tolerance,’ or ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy for certain behaviors (Kaufman et al., 2001), accepting the loss of individual rights as an acceptable sanction for those who place others in danger.
“The law requires a one-year mandatory expulsion for any student entering school with a weapon (NCLB, Sec. 4141, b). Infractions occurring on school property must be reported to law enforcement authorities (NCLB, Sec. 4141, h, 1). Under GFSA and NCLB, states are obliged to create similar zero-tolerance laws or risk losing federal funds (NCLB, Sec. 4141, b)” (McCarthy & Soodak, 2007).
We have, as a nation, been perplexed and dumbfounded by the number of violent acts that have occurred in public schools in recent years. As teachers, we have been not a little unsettled by such acts and rightfully deeply concerned about our students and ourselves. Of course we do not always make the right decisions about how to properly deal with these situations as Russ Skiba noted in a recent essay (Skiba, 2013; although, I do not agree entirely with his assessment or his conclusions.). On the other hand, we are often left with our hands tied: trying to avoid Skiba’s concern about ‘fear driven politically expedient rhetoric’ and searching for realistic, effective solutions to a problem that seems to have its own form of zero tolerance.
I agree that “zero-tolerance” is a relatively misguided solution to the problem of the mind-bogglingly radical school violence that we experience periodically. A recent rash of incidents in public schools serves to underline my point. Consider these examples:
- A fifth-grade student in Philadelphia had a paper “gun” and is subsequently suspended among other things. The author of the article dryly notes: “Critics who feel the teacher overreacted wonder if the educator was checking for paper bullets in the little girl’s pockets” (Paper gun).
- A 5-year-old in Cape Cod was facing a possible suspension for making a “gun” out of Legos in an after-school program. The mother (rightly, in my opinion) noted that “redirection would have been sufficient” (Lego gun).
- A first-grade student in Maryland was suspended for pointing his finger at another student and saying “POW,” (Jan. 3, 2013, Gun finger). A six-year-old girl in South Carolina was expelled for bringing a plastic toy gun to school (Plastic gun). Eventually, the decision for expulsion was reversed. I found the superintendent’s comments after the reversal very interesting.
- And, finally, a 10-year-old at (ironically) Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., was arrested for bringing a toy gun to school and for showing it to a friend on the school bus. He “was charged as a juvenile with brandishing a weapon.”
I bring this to your attention because we have a problem in our public schools and no one is offering us any viable, realistic solutions. Frankly, I think many people just hope and pray nothing will happen at their school. Some schools have taken matters into their own hands. Consider the Harrold Local School District in Texas where there are no more than 100 students attending classes. Yet in this school district an ‘undisclosed number’ of teachers and staff carry concealed weapons. In 2008, when the program was instituted, the school district was among the first and only schools in the nation to implement such measures.
In a school in Minnesota, a staff member took matters into her own hands and brought a loaded weapon to school and put it in her locker in the staff lounge. It seems to me that perhaps this is an indication that fear is motivating people to take steps that might not be in everyone’s best interest.
Now to bring this home, I teach special education. I also teach a room full of boys. I have toys in my room that are used for sensory breaks—toys like Lincoln Logs, Legos, blocks, little plastic soldiers and other things. My students, my boys, build lasers, play soldiers, play secret agents, cowboys among other reality-based fantasy and role-playing games. I also happen to be teaching in a rural school district where the opening of deer season is akin to a national holiday and camouflage tuxedos adorn the yearly prom (I jest, of course, but camo is a popular clothing style in our school district).
If I practiced the same zero-tolerance described in the articles above in my classroom, my students would never be in school. That is not rhetoric; that is reality. In many ways, this is what kids do: they imagine themselves as soldiers, cowboys, police officers. I did it growing up, as did my brothers and countless other boys and girls. If I took away the Legos and Lincoln Logs the boys in my class would use pencils or crayons or my pointer stick as guns. In other words, in special education, this is not merely a black-and-white issue. On the other hand, even in general education this is not merely a black-and-white issue.
What is the solution to the problem of lethal violence we face in our schools? Is it the sort of mental health profiling suggested by Skiba? Is it zero-tolerance policies being practiced by many schools, maybe yours? Is it having an armed police officer in every school as suggested by the NRA and some politicians? Is it to arm staff as is practiced by the Harrold Local School District in Texas? Clearly if there is not some sort of solution, people will find ways to solve the problem themselves.
Bickel, 2010 concludes with these deeply poignant words: “The protection of students must always be our primary objective even when physical interventions—delivered in a timely, appropriate and measured manner—are required to achieve this end. To do otherwise would amount to an abdication of our responsibilities as educators.”
What do you think? What should we, as educators, do? I hear from and read about the opinions of a lot of people, but from very few educators. As a teacher, what is your opinion? How would you solve this problem? I believe it is time and necessary for the nation to hear what teachers have to say on this matter. Our voice should matter in this conversation.