Zero tolerance? Or just what are schools expected to tolerate?

Over the weekend, David Jesse of The Ann Arbor News reported on the expulsion of a ten year old from a Michigan elementary school after a fight near the end of last school year, highlighting the difficult situations many public schools face as they struggle with how to educate and protect all of their students.

A ten year old started a fight with another youth which involved hitting and kicking on his first day at a new school…a move which was made because of problems at his previous school which had resulted in five suspensions and 23 missed days of school. It was hoped that a “new environment” would give him a new chance.

Sadly, I think this is rarely the case. Troubled children generally bring their troubles with them because the kinds of problems which lead to ten year olds threatening staff members and the safety of other students run much deeper than which peers they are hanging out with at the school they are enrolled in.

When I used to work with foster families here in Nebraska, one of the more common requests made by families was to have new foster children changed to new schools. Foster parents often saw negative peer influences as central to the child’s school behavior issues, and even to many of the difficulties they were having with the children in their home. Some caseworkers also saw placements as opportunities to rescue children from bad educational environments, and the children would be moved. Almost without exception, however, the youth merely found a similarly problematic peer group in the new school. As nice as a “fresh start” sounds, it is also true that no matter where in the world you go, you bring yourself…and your troubles…with you.

This ten year old started out his first day at his new school by swearing and flipping his middle finger at the teacher. At recess, he attacked another student, resulting ultimately in expulsion.

Expulsion isn’t always the best option for the expelled child. As Mark Fancher, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan says:

A kid with that much more free time is more vulnerable to influences leading them into trouble.

Jagers of U-M agreed.

“They find other kids who have been put out of school and they become delinquent together. They feed off each other.

“It’s a school-to-prison pipeline.” Ann Arbor News

At the same time, however, school districts cannot tolerate this kind of violent behavior in their schools. In fact, one of the most frequently cited reasons for homeschooling is to protect children from bullying in schools which is often not sufficiently addressed by school administrators. Without a basic sense of physical safety, children cannot learn in any environment. In the mean time, one more family has found a somewhat unique reason to homeschool. Felicia Hancock, the expelled ten year old’s mother, stated:

We’re trying to home-school him, but we ain’t no teachers.  Ibid

This child obviously needs help which the school district is not capable of handling, but somehow leaving the family to homeschool does not seem like the best option, either. And what of the mother’s pleas for help?  Her requests to the district to have her son evaluated for special services?

He has an anger problem. I know that. I wanted him to be tested (for special-education help), but they told me I didn’t want him to have that label, that it would follow him for 50 years.  Ibid

I am no fan of lables, but I am also no fan of turning a blind eye to children in need of help in order to avoid naming the very problems they and their families are experiences.  But what other options are there?  A child this violent cannot be maintained in the regular classroom, but do we simply discard ten year olds for fear of labeling?

And just why was this case used to question zero tolerance policies?  It’s not like the young man featured was expelled for cutting his lunch meat or making guns out of origami.

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23 Responses

  1. I dunno. It’s HER kid. Good luck to her. It’s possible that the child has some medical issues. It’s also possible that while she ain’t no teacher (nor yet grammarian – she said “AIN’T NO” for publication???), she may not be a good parent, either. Not being there, though, of course I can’t speak authoritatively on the subject. Just speculating.

    The article also makes a big deal out of the family being black, as though that somehow means the schools are racist in removing problem children. If 99 whites cause huge fights at school, 99 whites should be suspended. Same is true if there are 99 black kids doing the same thing. Their point? Are they asking the school not only to feed the kids two meals a day and parent them for three quarters of their waking hours, but to be advocates for some racial Utopia as well???

    I’m sorry, but stories like this just reinforce negative stereotypes about black people not being able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make it in life… which leads people to further conclude that they are inferior inherently. Which is NOT TRUE, so no flaming me in comments, but continual focus on who’s black, on reduced lunch and in trouble is counter-productive. Can’t we just say “Child X” is in trouble without labelling him as by his colour? Can’t we say “School District X” is really crappy without mentioning that it’s mostly a “black” school?


  2. Wow! “…ain’t no teacher…” That says it all, huh?

    Since our kids have never been in an institutional school setting, I have no first hand experience, with bullying. (“Back in my day, we …” anyway…getting off track.)Seems to me that all the people(5) I’ve talked to in my small town that are pulling their kids out of school to homeschool, or send them to a private school, are doing so because of bullying or teaching to the test.

    I counseled a lady regarding homeschooling her son, entering the 6th grade, yesterday. She says her son and his friend were being bullied. Her son’s comment was that he wished they lived in a bigger city where he thought he could start over in a bigger middle school, away from the bullies. They are deciding to homeschool and the friend’s parents want their son to tough it out. No, that’s not true…the mom wants him to learn “conflict resolution” and the dad wants him out of there.

    They had a meeting with the superintendent. The ES principal was giving them the run-around regarding the bullying policy (that’s what they say, I have no first hand idea.) The superintendent, I guess, gave them no assurances that the bullies would be dealt with.

  3. I wouldn’t hold “ain’t no” against her. Many people actually do talk like that, even if they would never write it.

    What is more troubling is that she doesn’t seem to be able to do even the most rudimentary research – how is homeschooling going to ever work?

    All she has to do is request, in writing, a sp. needs evaluation. Obviously, the super-caring school has not told her that if she WRITES her request they are required by law to honor it within 30 days.

    My son has anger issues, too, and was helped immensely by a sp. ed. program. It is possible to keep such children in school, help them, and teach them while keeping other kids safe.

    Then again, I had to write a three page letter quoting federal law (and containing some veiled lawsuit threats) just to get him a trial in the program… the bureaucracy makes it so difficult!

  4. I dunno, it’s her kid, good luck to her?

    (Not even “he” but “it” and then the gratuitous Made by McCain insult added to injury: “How dare he call ME the racist!”)

    I suppose if state and national governments actually ever took Mrs. C’s approach to its logical extreme, if such politics someday are imposed on all poor kids of all colors and all their ignorant, desperate moms, when we don’t have a whole phalanx of institutions armed at dear social cost, to attack and defeat on every front the twin enemies of Ignorance and Want, that *could* be the winning campaign bumper-sticker:

    Good luck, it’s your kid. I’m no racist!

    Last summer this same reporter hit Michigan public schoolteachers where they live, in their own families (not professionally helping the families of troubled kids — they dunno what to do either.) He published their salaries, documenting how they make $75,000 a year yet refuse to have that pay tied to performance, performance that presumably would include actually helping a child like this instead of just clucking at his mother’s ignorance, throwing the kid out and saying good luck to her.

    David Jesse reports [blog.mlive (dot) com/annarbornews/2008/08/university_of_texas_professor.html] another education story this week OUGHT to be the answer but of course is not. So Mrs. C or Dana or I don’t know what to do to help, but shouldn’t the new esteemed “poverty expert” for the Univ. of Michigan “School of Social Work”?

    Look at this expert’s elite academic credentials and career (Swarthmore, Harvard, Wellesley) and note she literally “wrote the book” being widely used to teach teachers and social workers how to serve the public (not just their own kids) at public expense: “Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low Wage Work.”

    Survive maybe, like animals. But what if they want to live rather than just survive? Is their best bet to become public employees in the helping professions, collecting good money for saying good luck just like the luminaries in the field, plying their platitudes and putting on a good show of knowing exactly how to help, if only they could find a better class of clients . . .

  5. A topic of great passion for me! I just submitted a comment that did not appear, probably because it had links to other Michigan stories by this same reporter? Dana, could you fish it out of the filter for me?

  6. Rebecca, that was my first thought, too. 🙂

    And JJRoss, comments with links usually get held for moderation, but yours actually got swallowed by Akismet. That is not a fun place to fish for comments.

  7. The race thing is a difficult one. On the one hand, our fixation on it seems racist on its own, but on the other hand, denying race’s role in society and in our lives denies a very important aspect of who we are. A “color blind” society is also not all we may make it out to be, any more than one which would deny my German-Irish heritage, the fact that I’m a woman or the fact that I am Christian.

    When I look at statistics like those brought out in the article…that this young man is poor, black and from a single parent houesehold, and that these factors are frequently identified by high expulsion rates…I don’t see inferior blacks, nor an inherently racist system.

    What I see is the same thing I saw teaching in Texas: parents afraid to stand up to the system, not even entirely sure that they could, and lacking the knowledge of where to go, who to talk to and what to say.

    What middle class, white suburban parent wouldn’t have had a string of meetings, therapists and potentially lawyers involved in this parent-school relationship long before the child moved schools? We don’t tend to accept “no” for an answer, and tend to expect the school to bend to our children, even when it isn’t feasible. We don’t throw our hands up and say, “well, the administrator says…”

    Who is there to advocate for these kids when their parents don’t even know that they can, let alone how? Who is there helping these families and communities? In my district, it was the public schools itself…and me through my work with the parental involvement office. I’ve seen these programs heavily criticized because what role does the state have in “training” parents, but who else is stepping in to assist?

    And this is where the race thing does get to me. There are leaders in the black community which seem to tout the victim line, that it is all white man’s fault, but they don’t help their communities navigate this “white man’s world” and fight for the very things their families need most.

  8. Oh, and while I smiled at the “ain’t no” against her, I don’t hold it against her. I hold it against the district that not all options have been explored and that special services are not being attempted, despite the mother’s request.

  9. Even if he ends up in a closed, special ed environment, this isn’t the end for a child. One of the more interesting readings I had in my education courses was about an elementary school student who tied another child to a tree and burned him to death. And yet this, and the label, weren’t the end for the child. An exceptional teacher was just the beginning of a new life.

  10. Thanks for your coverage of this, Dana.

    “The race thing is a difficult one. On the one hand, our fixation on it seems racist on its own, but on the other hand, denying race’s role in society and in our lives denies a very important aspect of who we are. A “color blind” society is also not all we may make it out to be, any more than one which would deny my German-Irish heritage, the fact that I’m a woman or the fact that I am Christian.”

    You said it! It’s difficulty is probably a sign of it’s importatnce. I’m about to lean into issues of race on my site with a series of posts on a book by Timothy Tyson called [readingcirclebooks (dot) com/reading-circles/blood-done-sign-my-name] Blood Done Sign My Name. I’d be honored to have you join me in the reading. (I’ve also got a copy of Gaither’s history of homeschooling in my backpack, ready to go when you are.) 🙂

    The parent in this needs and wants help, and the system as it stands is either unable or unwilling to give it. “Zero Tolerance” in this case is exactly what Prof Jagers described in the article: “It’s easier for a teacher or school to get rid of you than to deal with you.”

    The grandmother is a substitute teacher, but bringing assignments home from others’ classrooms is not homeschooling, and this family needs way more support–and more innovative, family-empowering support–than that. As JJ Ross points out, merely having experts around does not solve the problems for the families on the ground. As with race, pushing difficult educational issues aside will not work. We have to be willing to dive in to difficult issues and work with one another to reach a solution.

    The story quotes the Ypsilanti Superintendent Jim Hawkins as saying, “What I need in our district is more new tutoring, mentoring and other intervention programs. What we clearly need is other kinds of intervention strategies.” So here we are, homeschoolers with more or less unschooled minds, innovative ways of educating our children and each other, and a passion for justice, reconciliation, and family–how would we advise him or (if he has one) his parental involvement office? Would a local homeschool support network set aside a volunteer to support parents whose kids are having problems in school? What ideas for tutoring, mentoring, and intervention would we try?

  11. Christy.

    “The superintendent, I guess, gave them no assurances that the bullies would be dealt with.”

    This statement speaks to the very real issue; the majority reason why many of us homeschool

    “Schools, principals and teachers no longer have the authority to have these misbehavior’s dealt with.”

    This fact leads to more violent and repressive environments including tolerance for evil, guards, detectors etc.


    “He swore at and flipped off the teacher on the first day and still got to to go recess?!”

    When I went through school the teachers had the authority to deal with these behavior’s. I challenged the principal to a fight, I ran, he got a sixth grader to catch me and behind the shed the corporal punishment was metered. The day the yard stick left a 1/2 inch dent in the desk where my fingers were a split second earlier left an impression (excuse the pun)

    If my teachers did not have the ability to deal with my behavior’s, I would have fitted in perfectly to the school to prison system.

    The old paths are right. Respect for adults, personal responsibility, consequences for ones actions.

    At least it appears the mother understands her situation and is requesting help, “He has an anger problem. I know that. I wanted him to be tested (for special-education help),”

    Unfortunately the social engineers of our day forget one very important point. A fence is established to provide protection. Remove the fence and protection is gone.

  12. Dana

    “I’ve seen these programs heavily criticized because what role does the state have in “training” parents, but who else is stepping in to assist?”

    Hey, our church just spent $50 million dollars on a new construction project. We have no time or resources to walk where Jesus walked, got bills to pay. Sure you understand. By the way, our newly elected representative has some great ideas on this subject.

  13. The description of the boy’s expulsion hearing explains a lot about what doesn’t work in a crazy bureaucracy called public school. This boy had no voice in his defense right from the start. Except when he’s facing a school board and other strangers who will decide his future. ..sheesh..
    The mother is looking to the school to help when the ‘school system’ had already failed her son in reading and writing. But as noted, she doesn’t know where else to get help.
    I hope local homeschoolers read this article and attempt to take her (and family) under their wing, as the homeschooling community has with so many others. She’ll have a sympathetic ear and hopefully a visit to the library to see the many free resources that are available.
    I have seen so many families who are so very desperate to help their children and do only know to look to ‘experts’ for educational help. School authorities offer their limited vision suggestions to use “accredited” and very expensive correspondence schools that I’ve seen lead to disaster for a kid who’s already fighting ‘the system’.
    I’ve sent along a local homeschool resource page and a ‘give me a call’ to our high school office. With pushouts and dropouts reaching record highs in schools, it can only help our community and society to not have ’emergency’ homeschoolers floundering.

  14. Oh, wow. And here I steered away from calling the child a “boy” because I was concerned someone would take THAT as racist. Perhaps I should have called him “her child?” But really… the point I was *trying* to make is that such focus on race, in my personal opinion, only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes.

    You can disagree if you want, but my refusing to want to label each child and family by race and socioeconomic status speaks more to my political views on the role of government in education and other areas than race.

  15. I hear what you are saying, Mrs. C. 🙂 To me, the whole discussion comes in part from an oversensitivity to the issue for some and its overuse by others. I’m tired of hearing that Obama may not get elected because America isn’t ready for a black president rather than dealing with the reality that a lot of us just don’t think he would make a good president for the same reasons we didn’t think Gore or Kerry would have regardless of skin color.

    But at the same time, the issues this family face are related directly to their socioeconomic status…its wealth and family structure. Why do these problems disproportionately affect minorities, and particularly black and hispanic communities? It isn’t a question that we can seriously and honestly address without looking at race as well.

  16. Just a brief addendum to Dana’s comment — as a nonpartisan, I also didn’t think Gore or Kerry would make good presidents (nor George Bush) so I understand where some of you are left THIS year, with no inspiring choices.

    But I don’s see Obama as just the next in line with them. And for a change, for me, for once, I do have high hopes this time, and I personally pin those hopes on Obama, specifically because of his March 2008 race speech. That’s when and why I made up my own mind to care this year.

    I won’t link it (because Dana’s spam filter eats my comments if I do that) but you can go to my homepage and type this title into the search box to bring up my March 18 post: “I am voting for this man!”

  17. @Susan Ryan #14:

    “I’ve sent along a local homeschool resource page and a ‘give me a call’ to our high school office. With pushouts and dropouts reaching record highs in schools, it can only help our community and society to not have ‘emergency’ homeschoolers floundering.”

    Excellent! Has anyone ever taken you up on your offer?

  18. My spam filter should actually allow one link. I’m still baffled as to why it rejected you so soundly after you’ve been allowed to post so long. 🙂 I may have to start watching what goes into the spam filter rather than just the moderation queue but that thing catches over a thousand comments a week. I would like to read some other blogs sometimes. 🙂

  19. I was mulling this discussion over this morning while walking the dog. I really like Susan’s suggestion that homeschoolers be more proactive about reaching out to pushouts and dropouts — “emergency homeschoolers”, and her idea of providing a resource page to the school office. I also wonder, if a school accepts the enrollment of a student who has left his previous school due to repeated offenses and expulsions, shouldn’t they do so “with eyes open” so to speak and a *plan in place* to help ensure that the “change of environment” brings about a change in the child? Such a child is going to need firm limits, extra supervision, special ed evaluation, and cooperation between parents and school. Otherwise it’s just same song, second verse…

  20. A couple of times I’ve been in the high school office advocating for alternative education (homeschooling)for a family. I was called in by the principal once for a 17 year old who had been in disciplinary trouble. It was an odd situation, but the family had been left with a recomm. of using American School and getting the heck out of (school) town. The principal was personally intimidated by this boy, I think. Whether it was for good cause or not, I dunno, but I think that’s why he approached an annoying homeschooler like me with this. (I think that my husband being on the school board was another reason.)

    The second time was when a boy had been told that he couldn’t enroll until the following year (in public school). He was totally left hanging with no school alternative. (The guidance counselor didn’t want to do paperwork…I dunno.) The boy had the pleasure of telling the gc that he wasn’t interested in school after all, but would be homeschooling. The last time I saw him, he was 18 and graduating from the community college. He went from sheer helplessness and hopelessness to success and better yet, happiness.
    I know the high school principal’s asst…she goes to our church..and is a wonderful lady. She’s had the offer from me, but I haven’t heard from her about this,since our family exited the ps school board-wise and kid-wise. They changed principals and the current one is a community based, kid engaged guy. I think he’s a good one and doesn’t do the politics thing regarding kids.

  21. Dana, I was out of the loop and I am late on this post. But, I wanted to add my two cents anyway. I have nonwhite children and while my little children haven’t been to school, my oldest child has and she did not behave well at school. A child with a behavior problem needs a structured environment with consistant adults who are sensitive to behaviors he or she exhibits when they are escalating. Changing schools due to behavioral problems is a poor option. Marissa’s friends are always the kids who have unstable homes and behavior problems. “Normal” kids don’t understand her.

    [Who is there to advocate for these kids when their parents don’t even know that they can, let alone how?] Marissa had services in school. But, initially the school refused to test her. Ron and I had to pay for the tests ourselves. After our test demonstrated that Marissa did indeed have significant developmental delays, the school was forced to test her. The schools tests consistently demonstrated that while Marissa did have needs she didn’t score low enough on any of the standard tests to qualify for services. We paid to have her re-evaluated by an independent neuropsychologist. The school never fully implemented his recommendations. While we have insurance through Ron’s workplace, our insurance doesn’t cover evaluation for learning disabilities and our coverage for psychiatric care is nearly non-existant. We have paid simply thousands of dollars for Marissa’s care. I recieve adoption support so some of the cost is absorbed. I don’t know how a single woman without access to these services could financially manage getting her child services. I couldn’t do it and we had the money. I stopped short of hiring an attorney and decided to invest my time, talents and treasures into my child rather than in trying to change the system.

    Last, I am not sure we will ever be able to separate race and economic status from the discussions about special education and cost of education. Only 3% of our town’s population is nonwhite, yet a majority of the students in Marissa EBD (emotional-behavioral disorder) class were nonwhite.

  22. Thank you for sharing your experience, Julie. It is a fight to get services for a child who needs it, unfortunately. I remember telling a parent that she could indeed call an IEP meeting, and tried my best to tell her what she needed to try to push for. Unfortunately, once the “powers that be” began trying to dissuade her, she went quiet and accepted all their recommendations.

    It is a battle…and I’m sad to say that homeschooling often appears easier. Some of that depends on what the child’s special needs are, however. And where you are. I observed in a “poor” school in Lawrence as part of my education coursework and the program there was so well recognized that people were moving from out of state so their children with special needs could attend the school. The resource room instructor there was one of the most amazing educators I have ever met.

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