Zero Tolerance and Young Children: What’s the Common-Sense Answer?

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Academic Leadership

Since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut, school administrators and parents are on edge. The tragedy has thrust gun control and school security issues to the forefront of the national conversation, and zero-tolerance policies are once again in the news.

In three recent incidents, young elementary school children have been severely disciplined for their play. In Maryland, two six-year olds were suspended when they made pretend “guns” with their hands in a game of cops and robbers. In Pennsylvania, a kindergartener “threatened” to shoot other kids with her Hello Kitty bubble gun, resulting in a suspension. In Massachusetts, a five-year-old chased his classmates with a “gun” he built out of Legos. He was not suspended, but received a warning that he would be suspended if he did it again.

Young kids have been playing cops and robbers, war, cowboys and Indians, and other such games for a centuries. Where do we draw the line concerning zero tolerance? Is an inflexible zero tolerance policy even appropriate in all instances?

“It’s horrible what they’re doing to these kids,” Kelly Guarna, the mom of the girl with the bubble gun, said in Education News. “They’re threatening them as mini-adults, making them grow up too fast, and robbing them of their imaginations.”

Kenneth Trump, a school safety expert who heads up National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm, told the AP that “It’s a normal occurrence to have a heightened sense of sensitivity after a high-profile tragedy, but it does not negate the need for common sense.”

Trump’s company Web site notes that “Most school administrators strive for firm, fair, and consistent discipline applied with good common sense. Unfortunately, in some higher-profile cases, the ‘common sense’ part is missing.”

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reports that “… as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences,” including racial disproportionality, a greater negative impact on students with disabilities, and a high rate of repeat suspensions.

In its fact sheet for educators and policymakers, NASP suggests behavior-training strategies in place of zero-tolerance suspensions, including a violence-prevention program, social-skills training, and early intervention strategies.

“It’s a Catch-22 for schools,” Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at Johns Hopkins University, told The Washington Post. “They don’t want to overreact, but they don’t want to turn a blind eye to what they should be concerned about.”

What are your thoughts on zero tolerance, particularly with young children? How would you handle a situation like one of these? Let us know. #ISMINC

Additional ISM resources of interest
Student Victimization in U.S. Schools, Nov. 2011
ISM Monthly Update for Trustees Vol. 10 No 8 Indicators of School Crime and Safety
Jane’s Safe Schools Planning Guide for All Hazards

Additional resources for ISM Consortium Gold Members
Ideas & Perspectives Vol. 35 No. 12 Does Your Crisis Plan Really Protect Your Students (And Your School)?
To The Point Vol. 13 No. 4 Teams Keep an Eye on Campus Safety
To The Point Vol. 8 No. 10 Risk Management Audit: Tighten the Gaps in Your School's Safety Net

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