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Part 1: An end to zero-tolerance policies and the “school-to-prison pipeline”

A Return to Common Sense and Reason

The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.

Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?

The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.

Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:

  • Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
  • Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
  • Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs. 
  • Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
  • Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
  • Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).

By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.

Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.

It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.

One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All

The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.

Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.

And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”

A Better Way

School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.

These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.

 

 

 

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Say No to Armed Guards in Schools

A confusion of issues and solutions

We are back to school after the terrible tragedy of December 14th and the long holiday vacation. It was a juxtaposition of realities for families and school staff. And then the tragedy was high jacked by the gun industry, propelling us into a national discussion about arming school personnel to protect students and staff from a future violent rampage.

It is natural for caring people to want to do something, to take concrete action to prevent any more deaths of innocent school children and adults. We feel helpless otherwise. Every school district and building is likely reviewing its crisis prevention and emergency response plans, wondering how it would have handled the situation, making improvements, and holding practice drills. We are skittish.

But the discussion has gone askew. Putting guns in schools for protection is a dangerous diversion from the issues, a misguided over reaction that makes schools less safe. It is heartening to see the growing push back against this proposed solution.

Violence in Perspective

What we really need to do is to put what happened at Sandy Hook in perspective. Mass murder, or any murder, is still extremely rare at a school. It is horrible, but rare. And what happened at Sandy Hook is even more rare, as it does not fit the typical profile for the kind of deadly violence of a Columbine, Jonesboro, or West Paducah . This time the killer was not a disenfranchised, troubled, bullied male student from that school, hell-bent on notoriety or revenge. The Sandy Hook killer was an outsider, a troubled adult with a not yet revealed motive for choosing this elementary school to act out his mental breakdown.

But, yes! There is violence in schools and it spans the violence continuum from subtle to overt, from emotional to physical. The profile of school violence looks like this:

Common, every day – taunting, teasing, excluding, bullying, shoving, threatening, harassing, hazing…among students.

Rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by a student in that school.

Extremely rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by an outside intruder.

The real issues

It is clear that deadly gun violence by a student or an outsider are a distant second and third behind the typical more subtle violence our students have to deal with in schools daily, and that they are very different issues. What happened at Sandy Hook is not a school issue; it is a cultural, societal, and legal issue.

Suggesting that the routine use of armed guards or armed staff at all schools is the answer to school violence is irrational. It intentionally clouds the broader issues of a culture that uses violence to settle problems and to dominate others, the control of access to assault and other weapons, and the insufficient availability of mental health services for those in need and their families. These are the issues Sandy Hooks begs us to face head on if we truly want to keep our children and ourselves safe from random mass-shootings, because they can and do happen anywhere – at the mall, on our streets, in a movie theater, in a fast food restaurant, at an office building, and in our homes. The answer is not to station armed guards where ever people gather.

We can do some concrete things to make our schools safe

  • Have a written school safety plan that includes prevention and crisis response that meets our specific needs. From what we know, the principal and staff had done this due diligence to protect the members of their school. They developed a thorough crisis prevention/intervention plan that included controlled, limited access to the school, a plan for lock down and sheltering in place in an emergency, and a plan for sheltering off site in the event of an evacuation; and they practiced the drill with their students and staff. Add to this the valor of the adults and cooperation of the children, and they can rest assured they had taken school safety seriously. An armed guard or a principal with a gun would likely not have stopped someone with a semi-automatic weapon that planned to break into a school to shoot people.
  • Review and address the safety needs of our particular school. Many schools, usually secondary schools, in high-risk areas or with a high incidence of verbal and physical threats, poor administrative leadership, assaults, gang activity, non-compliance with the staff and school code of conduct, etc. have responded to their specific needs with security measures such as campus guards, controlled entry, and metal detectors, no backpacks, and swift and consistent response to violent threats or acts. These precautions are proper in these situations, but not for all schools.
  • Continue to intentionally make our school a violence-free zone for every student and adult. Assess and address the kinds of subtle, hurtful violence students face every day. Be observant, listen to students, and report and deal with problems as they arise. We aren’t helpless. This is what we can do to make schools safer and more secure for our children.

For information on the violence continuum and how to use it to identify the needs in your school, please see my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.

We have to fight to protect children’s rights

The unfortunate reality is we need legal protections to stop discrimination of targeted groups.

Bullies target those they see as different, feel superior to, and feel power over, and every child has a right to be safe and to learn and prosper emotionally, psychologically, and socially. But history shows that we need to fight hard for human rights. Recent legislation by almost all states that compels schools to protect students from bullying acknowledges the power of legal remedies to bring about change. This is especially true in the case of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students who are bullied more than any other group and are not yet protected by civil rights legislation.

In my book, Story Power: Breathing Life Into History,  I included a timeline of women’s rights to illustrate their journey. Progress was painfully slow until laws were finally enacted that gave women equal rights in all areas of their lives. If you ever doubted the value of legislation that protects targeted groups from discrimination, read through this timeline.

My Timeline of the History of Women’s Rights in America

Put yourself on the timeline and see where you fit in the legal evolution of women’s rights.

(This timeline is not all inclusive. There are many other milestones in women’s history.)

1776            Declaration of  Independence claims all men are created equal.

1789            US Constitution ratified and goes into effect.

1848            1st Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York.

1861            The American Civil War begins – fight for women’s rights put on hold.

1865            Civil War ends; Reconstruction begins.

1866            Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage.

1868             14th Amendment to the US Constitution gives all male citizens the right to vote.

1870             15th Amendment to the US Constitution says the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (Sex not included)

1878             The Woman Suffrage Amendment is first introduced in the US Congress: “Equality of  rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

1893             New Zealand first country to give women right to vote.

1903             National Women’s Trade Union established for better working conditions.

1917             Russia gives women right to vote.

1919             My father is born.

1920            19th Amendment gives US women right to vote; National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) becomes the League of Women Voters.

1921            My mother is born.

1923            The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) first proposed to Congress.

1940-45      WWII Propaganda campaign to get women to work in typically male jobs.

1951             I’m born.

1956            Number of women in the work force up from 8.5 million in 1947 to almost 13 million.

1959             American Medical Association sanctions birth control for the first time.

1960            FDA approves “the pill.”

1963            President’s “Commission on Status of Women” finds women discriminated against in almost all aspects of US life.

1964            Title VII Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment by race or gender.

1970             Congress approves the Equal Rights Amendment, first step toward adoption.

1972             ERA sent to states for ratification.

Title IX becomes law: no one can be discriminated against based on their sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

1973             Rowe v. Wade – women’s right to choose abortion – upheld by US Supreme Court.

1977             My first child is born.

1976             Nebraska adopts the first law making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.

1979             My second child is born.

1986            Supreme Court rules sexual harassment on the job is sex discrimination.

1992             American Association of University Women release their report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls.”

1993             Violence Against Women Act passes: acknowledges domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes.

2001            American Association of University Women releases “Beyond the ‘Gender Wars’: A conversation about girls, boys, and education.”

2009            Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act passed.

2012             Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to include coverage for birth control without a co-pay.

GOP and Democratic platforms differ on contraception and abortion.

ERA not yet ratified by a three-fourths majority of US states.

Ban assault rifles in our society; teach non-violence in our homes and schools.

It has been a while since I’ve posted a new blog. Everyday life happens, and sometimes what you think will be a simple, straightforward topic turns into a research project. (Look for a future post on the unhealthy art of sarcasm.)

But nothing gets everyone’s attention like a mass shooting of innocent people going about their everyday lives. The people of Colorado and the rest of the world are trying to wrap their heads around the mental and physical effort that went into a systematically, finely-calculated plan to kill people as they watched a movie.

On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, disturbing act by one individual. It shatters our sense of the safe haven– places where we can just be that we count on as being secure. Incidents of mass gun violence re-energize heated arguments about access to guns, a critical constitutional issue over which Americans constantly wrestle, often to little avail. But below is link that gives everyone a chance to come together and take positive action. No matter where we stand on Second Amendment rights, we should all be able to agree there is no place in our society for machines designed for no other purpose than to massacre. And while we work jointly to ban these assault weapons, we can work on fixing our culture of violence.

Fixing our culture of violence-one that is pervasive, not extraordinary – especially as we try to teach our children to choose peaceful ways of living, is lost in the blurring immediacy of a deadly tragedy. We call the incident senseless, but is it any more senseless than a child being taunted for the way she looks, or being excluded from the group because she is poor or has special learning needs, or being harassed and assaulted for being gay? From one end of the violence continuum to the other, it is all senseless, and physically and emotionally scarring. This everyday violence is where we need to focus. We have remarkable control over our homes and schools. We create the climate and culture that define what is right and wrong. We can make sure these are safe havens where adults model and children practice peaceful, respectful, and compassionate ways to treat each other.

Sure, make a commitment to ban assault rifles in our society, but also make a commitment to consistently model, teach, and expect non-violence in our schools and homes.

“President Obama and Governor Romney: Issue a joint call asking Congress to reinstate the expired federal assault weapons ban now.”

and also

“Stop Bullying!”

Hitting students? Legally? Really?

Many schools across America control their students through fear and physical violence. And they do it legally. Whether your child can be paddled in public school as a form of punishment depends on where you live.

Most states ban the use of corporal punishment in U.S. juvenile correction facilities and in the prison system.  Yet nineteen states still allow the use of corporal punishment by school adults against students who misbehave, break a rule, have a bad attitude, perform poorly in schoolwork, or do something that annoys them. It is even harder to understand the thinking behind this when we discover that ten of these nineteen states that allow students to be disciplined physically, paradoxically prohibit corporal punishment in their penal systems! How can this be so? They do this with the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1977,  ruled that the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights only protects convicted criminals from cruel and unusual punishment, not students confined to a classroom. (State-by-state analysis of the legality of corporal punishment in the US)

Not unlike prisoners, students are a confined audience at the mercy of those in power. They are vulnerable to whatever their classmates and adults dish at them. Thankfully there is a growing awareness of the frequency and harm of bullying and harassment, especially of certain groups of students. In recent years, many states and school districts have enacted laws and implemented policies that prohibit such abuse. We acknowledge that we owe our students a school climate that is safe and nurturing.

Much of a teacher’s influence on her students comes from modeling, often unintentionally, and we ask teachers and principals to intentionally model what they expect from their students. In addition to the moral and ethical questions of adults hurting children, paddling is not compatible with the understanding of how children learn. Corporal punishment does not model positive social skills, is not a deterrent, does not teach better behavior, and it does not improve academic performance. Paddling teaches our children that adults have the authority, power, and right to abuse them, emotionally and physically, when they are frustrated, angry, or believe we ought not spare the rod. It erodes students’ respect for adults and their belief in non-violent ways to solve problems, and fans disenfranchisement and rebellion. And disturbing is the knowledge that it is administered disproportionately toward the most vulnerable of our children. The US Office of Civil Rights reports that students with disabilities and African American children are paddled at twice the rate of the general school population. The poor, disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities are the overwhelming targets of this sanctioned school violence.

School violence of any kind sickens the climate and has a negative effect on students’ attitudes toward themselves and others, and their academic success. When adults inflict the violence it is an even more egregious abuse of physical and positional power.  So how can we justify sitting by while adults discipline students by hitting them?

We can’t.

As we outlaw bullying in schools, we have a chance to extend these protections even further, to all children on a national level.  The hope lies in our vigilance and support of the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act,” HR 3027 introduced in Congress on Sept 22, 2011 by NY Rep Carolyn McCarthy.

Learn more about the topic and how you can help eliminate corporal punishment in America’s schools.

Huffington Post blog post “Corporal Punishment in American Schools — Teaching Through Terror?”

Hazing-an excuse to abuse

Do no harm and allow no harm be done.

Before the recent scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University, I had started to write a post about the widespread hazing that is occurring in middle and high schools, especially in athletics. An article about a 14 year-old high school freshman beaten with a belt by six teammates while one coach observed and the other videotaped the assault, reminded me to finish my blog about the protected and privileged world of the athlete, and the tolerance for abuse shown by students and coaches.

What is hazing and how is it different from bullying?

Hazing is violence inflicted on students because they want to belong to particular group they consider of higher status. Tradition, peer pressure, and the desire for acceptance into the elite group, motivate students to put aside their self-respect and quietly suffer humiliation and physical danger. In contrast, bullying is random violence directed at someone who belongs to a group perceived as lower status or power, or at someone who appears defenseless.

How common is hazing?

Using a random sample of high school students throughout the country, a comprehensive 2000 study by Alfred University asked students to complete a confidential questionnaire on their experiences with hazing. 48 percent of high school students admitted being hazed by school groups. The highest percentage of hazing was in sports teams, gangs, and other social groups, but, surprisingly, it existed in almost all school groups.  They defined three types of hazing behavior: humiliation, substance abuse, and dangerous hazing. In this climate of condoned aggression and physical violence sanctioned as a tradition, it is no wonder that children are abused.

What does hazing look like?

Here is a small sampling of the kind of hazing violence reported in the U.S. Students were:

  • Spat on, hogtied, held in a locker and slammed into a wall.
  • Dragged across a muddy field then made to stand against a wall while soccer teammates kicked balls at them.
  • Beaten by ten athletes until bruised.
  • Roughed up, paddled, and then forced to box each other until they bled.
  • Restrained with duct tape.
  • Beaten and covered with mud, paint, feces and garbage; five girls ended up in the hospital.
  • Sexually assaulted with foreign objects.

Students are also subjected to: forced consumption of alcohol, tattooing, piercing, head-shaving, branding, sleep deprivation, physical punishment (paddling and “red-bellying”), and kidnapping.

In the real world these behaviors would be crimes and, with a new understanding of violence, they are starting to be treated as such.

Why do we allow it to happen?

We have developed a culture of status for certain groups and of looking the other way when they misbehave. Athletes have this special status, especially in the high-profile male sports like football, soccer, wrestling, and basketball. Sports teams provide entertainment, build school pride, and bring prestige to the school. It is not uncommon for schools and society to give them special dispensation for their violent behavior and when they break rules.

The attitudes of teachers, administrators, and parents who believe participation in sports is always a character-building experience perpetuate the treatment of the athlete as a privileged class. But being idolized, feared, admired, and envied for athletic skills and brute force do not build character. They breed idolatry and a sense of entitlement that lead to abuses of power and status.

How do coaches contribute to this culture?

Complicating the issue are coaches who condone hazing, and think breaking down an athlete’s self-esteem by verbally belittling him or handing out physical punishment is an effective way to motivate him to try harder. In this way, coaches openly model aggressive, bullying behavior.  Now as states and districts enact measures to reduce bullying by athletes, coaches who bully are under more scrutiny for their own violent behavior. They are being told to tone down their drastic discipline techniques and to no longer look the other way when one of their athletes bullies another student.

The Ohio State Education Department recognized the role schools play in the continuation of the tradition of hazing. Their efforts to stop hazing at the elementary school through the college level include an inclusive definition and strong condemnation of hazing and the adults who allow it. The code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. Adult culpability for what happens to their students is wake up call to all school and college staff.

Can we change tradition?

The students in the Alfred study were perceptive when they said it would be hard to stop hazing because it would take a breakdown of tradition, and that changing a culture is difficult. But we have repeatedly proven we can change the climate and culture of a school. We know that one of the most effective ways to do this is to take the stand that no violence, including teacher bullying of students or student bullying of each other,  is ignored or tolerated.

When it comes to hazing, schools have a direct supervisory role over the groups they sponsor and the obligation to keep participants free from emotional trauma and physical harm. We can reduce hazing abuses by educating students, families, and school staff, especially school coaches and extracurricular activity supervisors, and by enacting anti-hazing policies. Safe school climate efforts should send a strong anti-hazing message and make sure there is consistent follow through when it is reported, including appropriate school and criminal consequences. Coaches should also model non-violent character-building behavior to motivate their athletes, instead of perpetuating disrespect and aggression. And we should listen to our students when they say they want us to intervene to protect them, and that they would prefer positive initiation activities to build comradery and a feeling of belonging.

We can change the tradition of hazing.

We can do it by being clear about what is and is not tolerated, and then by holding everyone accountable.

Time to add another “protected class”?

Lady Gaga wants to speak with the President about students’ civil rights.

One week ago today, Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, committed suicide. Jamey was harassed in school and through social media for being gay. In one online video he tells us, “They’d taunt me in the hallways, and I thought I’d never escape it.” For strength Jamey embraced the message of Lady Gaga’s song,  “Born this Way. ” It became his personal anthem and she became his idol. His death hit her hard and she’s now calling for a movement to make gay bullying a crime.

Do we really need a new law?

Legislation seems to be the only way to curtail – we never completely stop – discrimination and acts of hate. For schools, federal civil rights laws already prohibit discrimination and harassment against certain groups in programs or activities that receive funds from the US Department of Education. The law makes discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, sex, disability, and age against the law in every state, in every educational institution.

These groups are members of a protected class of Americans. It’s clear who is missing from this list. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, 90% of whom report being bullied in school, have not yet been identified as needing legal protection. Yet research continues to confirm that gay-bashing of students is a widespread and common occurence.

What have we done so far? 

In October 2010, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This expanded the 1964 Hate Crimes Act to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity.

But is bullying in our schools a crime? Not unless it escalates into physical violence and threats of bodily harm that break the law. This leaves schools free to treat  acts such as taunting, name-calling, rumor spreading, stalking, and cyber-bullying, which lie toward the middle of the violence continuum, however they see fit.

Publicity about suicides has increased our understanding that school staff are responsible for keeping the climate of their schools free from hostility and harassment. Schools are now advised, and in some cases required by state law, to treat such incidents seriously and to respond quickly and definitively.

But as history teaches us, without the authority of a federal law that identifies those who are LGBT as a protected class, the way students are treated will be hit or miss, helpful or harmful, and too often left to cause emotional and psychological damage.

If Lady Gaga and the rest of us continue to bring attention to the issue, we might just pass a new civil rights law that protects gay students.