Schools’ Zero Tolerance Policies Make Zero Sense

Andrew Mikel II made a mistake, and it’s costing him. The problem is a “zero tolerance” disciplinary policy that turns schoolboy pranks into crimes; crimes that can impact a knucklehead kid for the rest of his life.

According to news reports, the Spotsylvania, VA, high school freshman used a pen-casing to blow plastic pellets at three classmates in the cafeteria.  School officials said they had no choice but to suspend Andrew for the remainder of the school year. He was also charged with three counts of criminal assault.

Andrew’s disciplinary ruling comes on the heels of the January 20 suicide death of Fairfax County, VA, high school sophomore, Nick Stuban. Nick had been disciplined by school officials for an undisclosed infraction.

One staff member didn’t agree with Andrew’s disciplinary ruling — school hearing officer John Lynn. Internal school documents released through a Freedom of Information Act request by Andrew’s father, Andrew Mikel Sr.,  revealed that Lynn sent an email to administrators saying he “was not at all comfortable suspending or expelling this student for the remainder of the year.”

Kudos to Lynn. His response was tempered, thoughtful. Andrew’s father appealed the decision, the story said, but his plea was overruled by a school board committee.

According to a Feb. 1 story in the Washington Post, Spotsylvania High School Principal Russell Davis emailed his position on the incident to other school officials: “We have an obligation to protect the students in our building from others who pose a threat to the over-all safe learning environment.”

The story, which first appeared Feb. 21 in WorldNetDaily, described the boy as an honor student and member of JROTC, with no previous disciplinary record.

Under the Federal Gun-Free Schools Act, schools are required to expel students who take weapons to school, including hand guns, explosive devises and projectiles.

I don’t question that schools have an obligation to protect students. What I do question is whether a kid who shoots what Andrew’s father called “the equivalent of spit wads,” should be punished the same as a kid who beats somebody to a pulp?

Shouldn’t there be a middle ground between ignoring bad behavior (check out Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz), and treating kids like criminals?

Many U.S. Presidents would not have made it to the top under the thumb of “zero tolerance.” For that matter, ask any teacher, principal, or policeman if they ever raised a little mayhem. The way foolishness was dealt with was different then.  Today, people react explosively to any person or idea that is even remotely threatening. Just listen to talk radio.

Do Andrew’s peers feel safer now that he’s gone?  Probably not. In fact, their level of fear has probably grown. Take away a child’s school and you take away his identity.

The watch-dog website features a short video of Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in an up-close message to Wal-Mart shoppers in which she urges them to report suspicious activity to police. The store manager will even assist customers in doing the reporting,  she said.

The “Big Brother” style video is supposed to air in Wal-Mart stores equipped with check-out screens. To my way thinking, it’s too much. But then I read 1984 in high school.]

Most people don’t want to hurt anyone – at least not on purpose. Truth be told, Andrew didn’t either.

The kid made a mistake. He should be allowed to fix it and get on with his life.  A week’s suspension or detention, maybe community service.  Instead, Andrew is at risk of becoming another angry youth who can’t trust people. I hope his family gets the help they need to right the whole emotional mess.

School administrators were doing what they believed would keep them in a job. Remember the 1980s and ‘90s, when schools brought in the new “whole language” methods of teaching reading? Good teachers knew this would hurt students and taught phonics anyway. They often paid a price for having good sense. Many lost their jobs, were demoted to less desirable schools, or were forced into early retirement.

Along with state and federal money for programs like “whole language” and  “zero tolerance” come mandates. Administrators who don’t support them risk not being able to support their families. Andrew Mikel II is just a kid, and kids are expendable.  FFG

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