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Recent Cases of Student Discipline Overreach Date Back Further than Sandy Hook

In the months following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, several local news stories about school discipline overreach have made national headlines, including the now infamous Hello Kitty bubble gun incident and the Pop-Tart gun caper. All glibness aside, these cases are being misrepresented in sensationalized news reports as an overreaction to the tragedy in Newtown.


In fact, these cases are part of a much longer history of zero-tolerance discipline policies in public schools, reaching back to the early 1990s. My colleague Laura Bornfreund wrote about the problems with applying zero-tolerance to our public schools’ youngest students in the Huffington Post back in March 2012, citing several then-current incidents, including the two-day suspension of a 9-year-old boy for putting a “kick me” sign on another student’s back.


Without a clear understanding of how such cases fit into the context of zero-tolerance discipline polices nationwide, we end up with reactive and overly simplistic legislation such as The Reasonable School Discipline Act of 2013. This legislation was introduced in the Maryland legisalture by State Senator J.B. Jennings after a 7-year old boy bit a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun, and then reportedly said, “Bang, bang.”


Jennings' comments identifying such cases as an overreaction to “high-profile tragic events,” as well as his proposed solution, belie the complexity of the issue. His bill begins:


FOR the purpose of prohibiting a principal from suspending or expelling a student who brings to school or possesses on school property a picture of a gun, a computer image of a gun, a facsimile of a gun, or any other object that resembles a gun but serves another purpose; prohibiting a principal from suspending or expelling a student who makes a hand shape or gesture resembling a gun; authorizing a principal to suspend or expel a student who  performs a certain action as a direct act of violence against another student on  school property.


This legislation is an unreasonable reaction to unreasonable school disciplinary decisions; we should know by now it is impossible to legislate rational behavior. The prescriptive, inflexible language is also striking in its resemblance to the zero-tolerance policies that are at the root of these overreaching disciplinary actions in the first place.  Take, for instance, this sample language from an elementary school zero-tolerance policy


Any student who continually and willfully disrupts the learning environment, disobeys classroom rules, or is defiant to staff will be subject to suspension. […] Any student who is involved in a fight, in possession of a weapon, a dangerous object, or any controlled substance is subject to arrest and may face criminal proceedings. Violations will result in disciplinary action that could result in suspension, transfer to an alternative educational school and/or possible expulsion for two semesters.


At its core, The Reasonable Discipline Act would operate in much the same way as the zero-tolerance discipline policies by which it was preceded, tying the hands of teachers and principals from responding to each incident on a case-by-case basis. This one-size-fits-all approach to school discipline is ineffective, regardless of whether its intent is to mandate – or prohibit – suspensions and expulsions.


Finally, overly simplistic “solutions” to this issue detract from the real work being done by experts, professionals and advocacy groups to reverse the detrimental effects of zero-tolerance policies in public schools. A 2011 Education Week op-ed by Gara LaMarche, “The Time Is Right to End 'Zero Tolerance' in Schools,” highlights the work of several organizations engaged in this effort:


In Baltimore, a focus on positive discipline helped improve attendance and achievement rates among black males most at risk of dropping out. In Indiana and Louisiana, two states plagued by notoriously violent youth-prison systems, a shift is under way to discourage suspensions and expulsions. In Clayton County, Ga., and Birmingham, Ala., family-court judges led efforts to establish protocols between schools, law enforcement, and local service agencies that improved school attendance and decreased school-based referrals to the courts. This trend is promising.


These efforts to promote positive discipline, reduce suspensions and expulsions and improve school climate are ongoing and significantly more complex than zero-tolerance allows. We need to seriously rethink how we approach school discipline in this country. Doing so will take more than laws that tie principals and teachers’ hands from using their personal judgment to make discipline decisions.