Julia(not her real name), is a 6th grade girl who was caught bringing a knife to school in her backpack. The initial knee-jerk reaction in most school districts with their zero-tolerance policies would be to suspend her and punish her. Fortunately, her school looked into the matter more deeply and discovered some sad truths that gave them pause.
When asked why she brought the knife to school, Julia burst into tears. She is part of the volunteer desegregation program, and thus has the long bus ride to school each day. And she has to walk several blocks to the bus stop, and that is where the story gets tricky. You see, Julia lives in a blighted neighborhood, the kind of place middle class parents wouldn’t feel safe to even drive through. And this little girl is petrified every morning when she has to walk by herself to get her bus. Her single mom goes to work too early to walk with her, and so she goes it alone. Her mom told her to take the knife to make her feel more brave.
Would you punish this girl? Not on your life! What she needs is support and protection, not judgments and suspensions. This may seem like an extreme story with which to pooh-pooh zero-tolerance policies, but perhaps it’s not. The way I see it, every child has a story behind their misbehaviors, and we need to respond to the reasons for the mischief, not just react with punishments.
And we have to remember that these are kids we are talking about, not little adults. That means they are supposed to make mistakes as a means to learn. They need guidance, boundaries, and understanding. They need consequences too, but it seems to me that zero-tolerance policies came out of fears about school shootings, and any policy based on fear is probably going to be short-sighted, reactionary, and not in the best long-term interest of children.