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Sunday, October 25, 2009

SOUND OFF: SHOULD `ZERO' MEAN ZERO?

After initially suspending a Delaware first grader and requiring him to spend 45 days at an alternative school, for having brought a camping knife to school in order to eat his lunch with the knife's fork and spoon, the school has re-evaluated its position. Now he will be suspended for three to five days and undergo counseling.

The original punishment reflected the school's zero-tolerance policy for students who come to school with weapons of any kind. The revised policy came about after widespread media attention prompted the school to decide that a child's "cognitive level" should be considered in determining punishment in such cases.

Given the student's age and innocent intent, was the school right to alter its stance? Or is the zero-tolerance policy best, given that the camping knife could still have caused serious harm?

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

11 comments:

M. Lawrence said...

This "zero common-sense" issue makes me so angry that it's almost hard to respond - but I'll try. Not only is the school system completely wrong, this child should have had ZERO punishment. The child did NOTHING wrong. A six-year old brings an eating utensil to school to eat his lunch and find himself facing suspension as well as "counseling." The only counseling that could help this child is a reality-based counseling that warns him of what he now already knows: the world is full of reactive adults of limited intelligence and judgment who also sit in positions of power. Get used to it.
I am a public school teacher, by the way, as well as a parent. School officials who come up with nonsense like "zero tolerance" policies have no business making rules for anyone, much less children whose only intent with their so-called "weapon" is to eat their lunch.

Bill Jacobson said...

Jeffrey,

This was a travesty of justice. Schools have the right to protect the safety of students and staff by confiscating weapons and punishing those who break the rules. The first grader arguably broke the rules by bringing the knife to school (Arguably the camping knife would have trouble cutting butter, let alone a fellow student, so designating it as a 'dangerous weapon' is a stretch and the student handbook appears to have failed to list any prohibited weapon rule) so the school was correct in confiscating the weapon.

But meting out discipline is only effective if doing so will serve to correct culpable behavior. The school administrators and, in fact, the entire school board completely failed to take into account the first grader's lack of malice and innocent intent to share his new camping gear at show and tell, an approved school activity (with probably very little guidance given on what would items would be acceptable). As such meting out a suspension for this will not effectively deter his behavior because a first grader is incapable of understanding the wrong in the first place. This would have been far better handled by notifying the parents and having them pick up the camping gear from school and talk to the kid. As it is, the biggest lesson the kid learned is not about not having weapons at school but rather the extreme unfairness of school administrators.

Zero tolerance rules are, themselves, inexcusable, but far too common results of overreacting legislative attempts to correct another wrong - this one in reaction to tragedies like Columbine. Like every other facet of life, there is little black and white and a great many shades of grey in administering a school. The rules are designed as a guideline but applying the rules requires discretion if they are to further the goal of maintaining order and safety. This discipline did not further those goals. Our legislators need to drop these zero tolerance overreactions and allow our schools the discretion they need to work properly.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

I can only second the comments left by Mr. Jacobson and M. Lawrence, especially the latter, because he speaks with authority about the idiocy of teachers and educational leaders making such reactive rulings. But, what do we expect, when the "leaders" of our national administration think that a weapon in anyone's hands is wrong? The case this travesty represents is only a small preview of what life is going to be like when Mr. Obama gets his way to outlaw any media like Fox just because they disagree with his policies unlike the rest of the "kept" media. The U.S. is fast becoming a sad memory of our former greatness. Welcome to "Obama Land".

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Kate said...

Calm down, Charlie. These are policies that have been in place much longer than Obama has been president.

That said, I agree that the school's decision was ridiculous at best. If the boy's camping utensils are like the ones my brothers had in their scouting days, then we're talking about the bluntest of table knives -- not remotely a weapon. Holding to a zero tolerance policy is pointless without reasonable definitions of what is or is not dangerous. Poor kid, to get dragged through a mess like this.

Kenney said...

Charlie: You've exposed yourself as a foolish ideologue (as if there were another kind). This has nothing to do with Obama, and neither should your opinion. These policies in many school districts were implemented after either Columbine (in 1999) or Virginia Tech (in 2007), when Clinton and then Bush were in office. In fact, there was another knife case in the Christina school district in 2007, when Bush was president. As for the case itself, the parents' role (and lack of pre-emptive parenting) deserves attention.

Patricia S. said...

The entire concept of "zero tolerance" is absurd. The idea of it being used in schools -- removing thought from the people who are supposed to be teaching our children -- heads through the looking glass.

Once upon a time, we went to school to learn. And some of us, at least, were reminded that the primary function of school was teaching us to think. Zero tolerance policies are a result of not wanting the people in charge (of whatever group) to have the option of thinking. Follow the party line, don't question the prescribed policy. Suspend a child for truancy (yes, I've seen it happen).

Perhaps I'm naive, but I really want to go back to the days when people were allowed to think, and debate was about more than who could shout the loudest.

Anonymous said...

Let's have a little sympathy for the schools: how high is up? How big is big? How sharp is sharp? Do we really need teachers measuring knives, and making judgments about how share the blade is.

And let's have little sympathy for the parents of this boy: did they allow their son to take the knife/fork to school? If so, they were absolutely wrong. They know the rules - and if they didn't, they should have - and they are absolutely wrong to have allowed him to take a knife/fork to school.

David said...

Zero tolerance makes zero sense inmost cases, especially one like this.

Anonymous said...

After having read the comments that postdated my own on this question, I can only say that I didn't know Jeffrey's blog allowed posters to insult or question the intellilgence of other posters. Here I refer to Kate (I am calm) and Kenney, who called me an idealogue. Obviously, my comments had nothing to do with Obama championing the school's zero tolerance policies, but it does behoove us to notice that a zero tolerance for a "weapon" like described in this case and the ongoing Democrat Paty penchant to want private weapons outlawed most certainly does coincide. Wake up and smell the coffee, Kenney. And, Jeffrey, I would appreciate it if you would make an announcement that posters do not bring in personal insulting comments about other posters contributions to the blog.

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

As long as parents display zero sense of responsibility, schools have no choice but to have zero tolerance policies.

For the school to tolerate something that could be used as a weapon by one child, and send another child home for bringing in something else that could be used as a weapon (say, a Swiss Army knife) opens the school up to lawsuits. And don't think the lawsuits wouldn't come: to think otherwise is to ignore recent history.

Rick Kenney said...

Charlie:
Quit before you make an even greater fool of yourself again. Your unformed and virtually unreadable ideas are an insult to the mostly intelligent people who follow this blog. Quit whining and instead, spend some time reading and thinking; in a few years, you might have learned enough to return to this discussion. Given your penchant for posting without thinking, though, I doubt it.