When I read about Ahmed and his clock, I immediately thought of my own experience. And while my own run in with school discipline was different than Ahmed’s, both are examples of a major problem in today’s primary education system: zero-tolerance policies. Such policies, and the decisions that result from them, often neglect the American tradition of innocent until proven guilty. Driven by fear, they also hand out excessive punishment, especially to students with no previous disciplinary problems. I wrote a short essay on the subject over the summer for a speech class, and I encourage you to read it:
Last year, 15 year old Dontadrian Bruce held up three fingers in a picture of his school biology project. The next school day he was suspended. Several days later, he received a recommendation for expulsion, on the grounds that the gesture was similar to a gang sign.
Dontadrian is one of the many children that we are sacrificing on the altar of zero-tolerance school discipline laws. By mandating levels of punishment, schools and states are effectively applying mandatory minimum laws to the most vulnerable population of offenders- our children.
The high cost of the policy has not yielded any real improvements in child behavior. At the same time, each student suspended or expelled faces a harsh reality. Studies show that a single suspension doubles a student’s risk of repeating a grade, and in turn, repeating a grade raises the probability that a student will drop out of school by as much as 68%.
These problems impact society too. Adults without high school degrees earn significantly less than those with degrees, and they experience much more unemployment.
At this point I have a confession to make. I chose this topic because I, like Dontadrian, was suspended under a zero-tolerance policy. My freshman year of high school I designed a magic trick which caused a flash of fire to erupt when someone opened an altoids can. Like the stupid high schooler I was, I brought the thing to school. Later in the day, a drug dog randomly inspected my classroom. Because my contraption used a weird chemical found also in some bomb components, the dog sniffed out my backpack. I was taken to the dean’s office, where I talked to the police department. The chemical I brought to school turned out to be completely legal and perfectly harmless. Magicians and special effects artists use it all the time. The police filed no complaint against me. The school was a different story. After examing the case, the dean of the school had no choice but to open a computer program, and click an option in a drop down menu. His selection: “possession of a bomb-like object.” The punishment: expulsion.
I am happy to say that I got lucky. I met with an understanding superintendent and I happened to have an uncle who works in the special effects industry who could explain the situation. My expulsion got revoked and my suspension was reduced to only a few days. If they had not been, I would not be standing here today, and I definitely would not have gone on to attend college. I would have been placed into a continuation school with little hope of accessing higher education.
But thousands of others, like Dontadrian, are not so lucky. We are allowing their small mistakes destroy the trajectory of their lives. This is why I urge you all to have no tolerance for zero-tolerance. Our children deserve something better than this travesty of justice, especially when their futures are the cost.