One of the many education related bills already introduced in Oklahoma’s 56th Legislature is Senate Bill 81, filed by Senator Ron Sharp, Republican, of Shawnee. The headline at www.newsok.com on Tuesday, January 10th, reads, “Under proposed bill, violent elementary school students subject to suspension.” According to the introduced version at www.oklegislature.gov, the bill is “an act relating to school discipline… lowering the grade level at which students who commit certain acts are subject to out-of-school suspension.” Currently, Oklahoma students in grades 6-12 are subject to suspension if they “act in a manner that could reasonably cause bodily injury to an education employee or a person who is volunteering for the school.” Senate Bill 81 would make 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders subject to the same penalty.
This kind of policy is what is known as “zero tolerance” discipline. Zero tolerance has a storied history that begins with the mid-90s “tough on crime” policies of Bill Clinton, policies of which disastrous consequences are now well documented in the film “13th”, and policies of which Clinton himself has since apologized. The real problem with zero tolerance is the lack of discretion related to the strict enforcement of the policy. This type of school discipline is literally “one strike and you’re out.” Students are subject to suspension for behaviors that don’t logically apply to the intended infraction, behaviors like wearing a charm in the shape of a gun or accidentally bumping into a teacher or principal.
Senator Sharp said concerning the need for the bill, “These third-graders today are not the third-graders of yesteryear. They’re big and strong, and they are attacking teachers and other students. It’s a problem today in our public schools.”
I remember yesteryear. That was when third-graders sat quietly in neat rows of desks while the teacher paddled the “class clown” in the hall. I, for one, am glad that both rows of desks and paddles are not common in third grade classrooms today. And is Senator Sharp imagining a generation of third graders on steroids? Sure, data suggests that the human race is getting taller, but kids have not changed. Schools and school discipline has changed, some for the good, and some for the bad. But it seems some like Ron Sharp are nostalgic for “the good ole’ days”.
But the Senator is not alone in this push toward zero tolerance. NewsOK cites POE (Professional Oklahoma Educators) as the organization that requested the expansion. Ginger Tinney, executive director of POE is quoted as saying, “Private schools and charter schools can kicks these students out of school; public schools can’t do that.” That is akin to what so many of us in #oklaed have been saying for years. Public schools serve a function in society that no private or charter school can. Is Ginger Tinney suggesting that there are students who don’t deserve to go to school at all? Because private and charter schools kick out so many students is precisely why public schools need to be extremely cautious when denying an education to any young person.
Ed Allen of AFT (American Federation of Teachers), the bargaining association for OKCPS, has a more nuanced view. “In a perfect world there would be services and placement opportunities so that they could continue their education.” But does the world really have to be perfect before we realize that zero tolerance policies don’t make anyone safer? At best, suspensions are a brief recess for teachers. And at worst, the research is clear that suspension is the official entrance to the school-to-prison pipeline. I guess Sharp and POE are more interested in a “preschool-to-prison” pipeline.
There are alternatives to suspensions, if any legislators, professional organizers, administrators, or teachers are willing to see them, alternatives that involve helping the student rather than punishing the infraction. Restorative Justice is working in public schools all across the country. Justice circles, conflict resolution, and peer mediation are just some of the tools of restorative justice. Whole districts are turning detention rooms into areas for yoga and meditation. Schools are giving students with behavioral challenges an opportunity to work out their frustration through “cybercycling” programs. Is it difficult? Yes! Especially when it comes to creating a paradigm shift in the way an entire school building thinks about discipline. But it is possible, and it does not require a perfect world.
Don’t get me wrong, teaching can be a dangerous profession. I am not denying the inherent risk, especially in under-served urban areas. I am not advocating for the self-sacrifice of educators, a disregard for the safety of teachers. My contention is that suspensions do not ultimately make teachers any safer. There is a gaping wound in how we approach discipline in our public schools, and suspensions are a very poor band aid. One that offers very temporary relief. The real misfortune is that a lack of student centered discipline policies often leads good teachers to rejoice over the suspension of their difficult students. As for me, may I never find pleasure in the detention or suspension of any of my students.