11 Nov

Reflections:Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Nov.11, 2010

“Hearing that a student has hit a teacher is terrible news.  Yet hearing Arthur’s name as the alleged attacker was worse news.  Of all the eighth graders, Arthur was one of the least likely to get into trouble….  I couldn’t comprehend the idea of Arthur intentionally hitting a teacher.  It had to be an accident.”

(Frank Murphy, in Confessions of an Urban Principal)

There was never a doubt in my mind as a school principal that it was my responsibility to ensure a safe school climate for all members of my school community.  When children disrupted the school environment I reacted immediately to their misbehavior.  I used my judgment as a professional educator when I responded to the inappropriate actions of a student.  It was also my expectation that my staff would do the same.  I considered the age of the child, my knowledge of the individual, and the seriousness of the infraction in determining an appropriate consequence.  The sanctions I imposed on students who misbehaved were based on common sense and were tailored to the need of each individual.

Zero tolerance policies for weapons offenses and serious assaults, established by states and district across the country, have made it difficult for school principals to use their professional judgment in responding to student discipline issues.  The belief behind these policies is that the consequences for these kinds of issues should be the same regardless of a student’s age or individual circumstances.  School administrators who use their own discretion in applying these zero tolerance policies do so at the risk of facing possible sanctions.

Like most school districts, the Philadelphia School District has created a code of student conduct. This code lists a variety of inappropriate behaviors that will not be tolerated in the school setting.  The offenses described range from minor infractions (e.g. failure to follow classroom rules/disruption/disrespect for authority) to major infractions (e.g. aggravated assault).  It also lists possible consequences for each of the listed violations of the code.  This code was a guide that I regularly consulted when handling student disciplinary issues.

In this code, the expectation was stated that school administrators would implement the student code of conduct and disciplinary procedures in a fair and consistent manner.  This I did do. But this did not mean that I considered equitable treatment to be the same thing as equal treatment in enforcing this code.  When I was faced with the situation that a seventh grade student had brought a knife to school with the intention of causing harm to another student, I pursued all of the actions that were prescribed in my district’s zero tolerance policy.  The police would be called.  The student would be arrested.  An immediate suspension would be issued.  I would recommend that the student be expelled from the district.

In the case of a first grader who brought a Swiss army knife to school in order to show it to other children in the classroom, I would pursue a different course of action.  Although bringing a weapon into the school is considered to be a zero tolerance offence, this does not mean that the consequence for this offense must be the same in every case.  There is a difference between being treated equally and being treated fairly.

In the case of the first grader, contacting the child’s parents might be all that is necessary to maintain a safe school environment.  This should be a decision that is left in the hands of school personnel.  Zero tolerance policies that require that the same consequence be imposed on all students regardless of the circumstances, treat children in ways that mimic the adult criminal justice system.

School disciplinary procedures that result in criminalizing student  misbehavior greatly increase the likely that these individuals will not graduate from high school.  Ninety percent of students who are involved in a crime drop out of school.  African American and Latin boys who already represent a disproportionately high percentage of all Philadelphia dropouts are further put at risk by these policies.  In consideration of these statistic, school administrators should think long and hard before reaching a decision that will place a child in this high risk category. Advocates who recently called for a review of the districts expulsion policy have expressed this same concern.

In some states, zero tolerance laws have been eased but in many schools a hard line is still pursued in dealing with the poor choices of some children. The inherent lack of fairness that is at the heart of zero tolerance policies is an issue that has long been a concern to me.  It is the main reason why I felt such a sense of apprehension when I heard that Arthur might have assaulted a teacher.  But before I took an action, which could have resulted in serious life altering consequences for Arthur, I sought the facts concerning this alleged assault.

I think it is always best to look before one leaps.


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