Zero Tolerance Policies Are Not Pro Teacher

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.

Reading For Revolution

All of the presently available alternatives to the American public school system (private schools, charters, vouchers, home schooling, online, and even “unschooling”) are all predicated on elitism. It is hard to know what Paulo Freire would think of the public school system in the U.S. today, but I am quite confident he would be highly critical of the above mentioned alternatives.

Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher best known for his “critical pedagogy” and his influential work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Freire worked in adult literacy in some of the poorest areas of Brazil, and for a time was imprisoned for his work. He believed that literacy was the key to the oppressed class taking back their power from their oppressors, the ruling class.

I believe there is now in the U.S. under an impending Trump presidency an opportunity for urban public schools to become centers for revolution in the tradition of Paulo Freire, a chance for us to teach “reading for revolution”. The curriculum for this reading program would emerge from a framework of class warfare. Students at underserved schools would be taught the complexities of the systems that have created the inequalities they experience at home and school. Then literacy would be offered as a way to combat that inequality.

The goal would not be to teach urban students to despise their suburban counterparts. After all, suburban students are not their oppressors (although suburban white flight parents with their “school choice” may be). But no doubt some animosity would arise along the way, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Unfortunately, many urban schools lack the resources and/or environment necessary to host this kind of revolution. Too often, these schools spend much of the academic day addressing the very challenges of inequality created by the system, leaving little time for something like meaningful reading. It can be very difficult for a student facing hunger, homelessness, and the like to see the importance of reading.

And too often, teachers use an antiquated system of grades to coax students into reading. Reading must become a higher cause than receiving a grade. Students must learn the paths to their own liberation and then be loosed to read (and write) their way out of oppression and become stakeholders in a true revolution of the people.

Spoon Vision?

Near the end of Act I of the hit musical “Hamilton”, the cast, made up almost entirely of people of color, summarize the sentiment of the Americans in the very moment when the British surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown signaling the end of the war. “I hear the drinking song their singing… the world turned upside down.”

A favorite hymn at my small urban Mennonite church in Oklahoma City is “Canticle of the Turning”. My favorite lyrics are in the third verse: “From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.”

An upside down world is apt imagery for a true revolution of the people. Despite my initial impression, the world is currently not upside down, post November 8, 2016. Trump’s rise is not a revolution by any definition. As so many have testified in response to the election, life was difficult for people of color before Trump. The only difference now, it seems, is that many white people are waking up to this reality.

So “Spoon Vision” is my attempt to see the upside down world that could be. The Revolution that is possible. The Revolution that starts and ends in education. This blog will focus on social justice issues and their relevance in Oklahoma public schools, but more specifically, social justice issues that haves names and faces inside my 8th grade U.S. History class in Del City, Oklahoma.