let kids watch beauty and the beast

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

playgroundOver 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.