Zero Tolerance Is Intolerance

Two of my former students demonstrate the consequences of zero-tolerance discipline policies.
07/21/2017 09:20 am ET
Kristina Williamson via Getty Images

Every year, when my students and I read Death of a Salesman, I’m struck by Charlie’s line in Act one. “Forget about him,” Willy Loman’s old friend and neighbor tells Willy about his older son, Biff. “He won’t starve. None of them starve.” Understandable, perhaps, to say that to a man tormented by regrets and disappointments, especially concerning that son. But I cannot help wondering whether I agree with Charlie.

Where’s the threshold between having faith in a lost soul and giving up.

In 1993, we were about six pages past Charlie’s line when Damian Smith came banging on the classroom door. I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks. Nor had any other teachers. A moment after I let him in there was another knock on the windowless classroom door, louder this time. Damian said, “Don’t answer that.” Damian was a joker but his tone now was dead serious. He said he was running from armed gangbangers. I didn’t answer their repeated pounding and we had no class phones or any way to communicate with anyone outside the room. Eventually those guys moved on and terrorized the school’s main office. When the principal found out who they’d come looking for she decided she’d had enough of Damian Smith and kicked him out of the school. Actually, she gave him an “opportunity transfer” to a school dominated by members of the same gang that had chased him into my classroom. He dropped out. Five years later he visited me. He’d just gotten out of prison and wanted to say hi. A few years after that another former student told me he’d seen Damian sleeping on the street and coming out of the yard of a crack house. A few years after that someone told me Damian Smith had passed away.

No way of telling whether any of this would have gone differently had our principal given Damian another chance. What I do know is that we gave up on him. The principal. The school. The district. No one bothered to try and figure out what was best for Damian. He was shuffled along for convenience and peace and quiet. We gave up on him and then he gave up on himself.

I never forgot how we failed Damian and have tried, ever since, to stand up for students in trouble but haven’t always succeeded. About five years ago, Aubreyanna Parks got in a fight with another girl and I didn’t fight hard enough to keep our school from giving up on her. Rules are rules. Zero-tolerance policies are expedient and they are popular. Exceptions lead to an erosion of the order and civility or so goes the argument anyway. Exceptions degrade respect for those in charge. And besides, to paraphrase another line from Death of a Salesman, Aubreyanna wasn’t “well liked.” Aubrey had attitude. She didn’t talk to most of her fellow students. She could be sullen and angry and non-responsive when people asked her what was wrong. She was also bright and creative and got A’s and took college classes in high school. She was set to graduate high school and community college before her 17th birthday. I think that kicking her outs was supposed to teach her a lesson about self-control and getting along with people and respecting authority but really the primary objective was to make her and her attitude someone else’s concern.

That’s what zero-tolerance policies are for. They relieve adults of having to make important decisions about someone’s future. They eliminate the risks of believing in imperfect young people. Kids challenge authority. They disagree with restrictions we place upon them. They are self-destructive ― especially when those young people have lost people they love and have been exposed to sometimes severe poverty and violence.

Here is what happened to Aubreyanna after she was kicked out of our school:

I was teaching a class full of her peers a year-and-a-half later when we got the news. The kids who seemed the most devastated were the ones who had disliked her the most. They seemed, almost immediately, to understand the price of intolerance. The school district brought in a crisis counsellor and our principal — who was not the one who’d kicked her out — admonished us not to discuss this case with the media.

I wish I had disobeyed that rule and publicly questioned some of the reporting. The local media portrayed Aubrey as a teenage prostitute. Her mother believed she was kidnapped into the sex trade. I’m not sure anyone dug deep enough to figure out who she really was but either way we — our school administration, our school, the system — had given up on Aubrey and she wound up dead and disfigured. So I don’t believe our school’s intended lesson was a very effective one.

How many chances do you give a troubled teenager? How many chances do you give anyone before you give up?

Surrender seems to have become the go-to response to so many challenges — from difficult relationships to our criminal justice system, our education system, our the economy and our democracy. I would argue that those who give up are lazy. They are lazy thinkers and lazy people. Believing in people and believing in institutions requires imagination and it obliges us to act.

Of course, some people don’t deserve another chance. Larry Soo Shin, the man who killed Aubreyana, was recently sentenced to life in prison and he deserves at least that much for what he did. But shouldn’t the threshold between faith and surrender — between second chances and giving up — be closer to this guy than to his victim?

I have a confession to make about my own laziness. My first few years teaching I gave up on a lot of kids. I never tried to get anyone kicked out of a school or even out of my class. But in my mind and heart I believed that a lot of my students were hopelessly angry and hopelessly unfocused, hopelessly violent and hopelessly unstable. I never told anyone but I thought it and felt it and then felt stupid when some of the kids I’d given up on turned themselves around. I’ve never forgotten that. How stupid I felt and how resilient so many people are.

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