May 24 — 12:00 am, 2007

What goes around comes around

Even our most troubled students are still children and need help

It was only a phone call, but it felt like a slap in the face.

On the line was a recorded message from the School District: “If your child assaults … any teacher, staff member, or adult, they will be arrested and charged with a felony. There are no exceptions.”

With all the violence that our children and teachers were facing inside and outside the classroom, was this really the best we had to offer?

The recording, a reaction to a series of incidents reported in the daily papers, made me think about the dangers of tailoring policy to the most extreme acts – especially policy that targets children as young as 10 years of age. More importantly, it reminded me that violence exhibits itself a thousand times to our children before it ever becomes a physical act.

It can come through in the daily interactions at a school. I was at a South Philadelphia elementary school this spring to read for Dr. Seuss Day. The gym teacher’s introduction quickly tempered my enthusiasm for Yertle the Turtle.

“Youse all sit down and shut up,” he said. “Anyone who speaks gets an F. Now be quiet so we can listen to our guest.”

A colleague of mine who visited the same school that day said she overheard a teacher, who had injured his arm, worrying about a student who had threatened him by saying, “I’m going to put that other arm in a sling.” The teacher also worried about a principal who didn’t seem responsive to his fears.

Violence is exhibited through the lack of funding that reinforces how we value teaching and learning. I think about the stripping away of teachers, arts and music programs, librarians, counselors, and support personnel – all people who not only educate but also nurture and mentor our children. Last spring, an older student threatened a child with a make-believe gun at our school. I had to wonder whether the personnel we once had (but can no longer afford) to watch students before and after school might have stopped that incident from happening.

Violence is reflected in the physical space of our aging buildings. I think about how parents at our local middle school reportedly were told by the District that it didn’t have the money to repair a building that parents said was deteriorating and full of mold. Weeks later, a piece of the ceiling fell, sending a teacher to the emergency room.

With violence surrounding us in its myriad of forms, the School District policies then continue that cycle – so-called “zero tolerance.” School CEO Paul Vallas talks frequently about how the number one request he has from teachers is to remove the “bad kids” from the classroom. While I don’t doubt that request, I highly doubt that most teachers think the expansion of a secondary education system of privatized disciplinary schools have functioned as a quality response.

I think about how when children are in crisis and are acting out; our teachers are struggling in under-funded classrooms; we are being plundered by privatized education companies encouraging a second-class disciplinary system; and then when violence erupts, our first reaction is to implement a knee-jerk policy of arrest and felony charges.

Such a policy is not only inhumane but useless. In outrageous and criminal incidents such as what happened at Germantown High School, the courts and police would step in anyway. Our job is not to hype consequences after the fact, but to initiate policies that reduce the likelihood of not just extreme violence but daily violence.

Policies like reduced class size, a qualified nurse and counselor for every school, a qualified teacher for every classroom, art and music and sports for every school, and so on.

The refrain is only tired because these are a given at nearly any suburban district but are an unimagined luxury for our kids.

Instead, we have policies to suspend, arrest, punish, and potentially imprison our children, but we can’t have a policy for reduced class size or textbooks or open libraries in our schools. We can guarantee military recruiters in our schools, but not a teacher in a classroom. We can promise our high schoolers will see a war but not a high school diploma upon graduation. So what’s really violent here?

A zero-tolerance policy does nothing to address the problem that not enough resources have been invested in our children. It does nothing to remind us that even our most troubled students are still children and need help, not prison.

What it does is target children as young as 10 years of age for failing to overcome the obstacles we adults have put in their way. It’s a quick fix for the desperate teacher in an overcrowded classroom without personnel and training to cope with students’ emotional and academic needs. But it leaves us with the long-term consequences of pushing that student farther and farther to the edges of schooling and society.

We do need to deal with violence in our schools. But instead of looking at our kids first, let’s look at the policies we adults establish to either stop violence or contribute to its cycle.

What goes around comes around.

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