Monday, October 12, 2009

Six-year-old suspended for eating with camping utensil at school

I used to teach at a high school with high rates of teenage pregnancy, drop-outs, and general misbehavior. The administration tried a variety of tactics to keep kids on the straight-and-narrow, including the introduction of ID badges, police officers in the hallways, and a number of other interventions. The school also had a very strict policy regarding threats to students or the school. A frustrated student muttering, Gosh, this is so boring I could kill myself, led to an automatic removal from class accompanied by a psych evaluation.

If a psych evaluation seems harsh, consider the "zero-tolerance" policies adopted at many schools across the nation. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that six-year-old Zachary Christie was suspended for bringing a Cub Scout camping utensil to school because the tool contained a fork, spoon, and a knife; the knife violated the school's zero-tolerance policy on weapons. In addition to the suspension, Zachary (who takes school so seriously that he often wears a suit and tie to his first grade classroom) faces 45 days in a reform school.

Watch the video here.

The New York Times reports that school officials argue that it is difficult for schools "to distinguish innocent pranks and mistakes from more serious threats, and that the policies must be strict to protect students." I disagree.

While basic policies must remain in place to keep children safe, basic common sense must take precedence when dealing with young children. Has anyone considered the harm being done to poor Zachary, who is without the benefit of formal education or social interactions with his peers for 45 days? Has it occurred to anyone that the children in his classroom might benefit from a lesson and an explanation, rather than seeing a well-behaved classmate suddenly removed from school? Did anyone think that young Zachary might be so excited about Cub Scouts that he just wanted to share his enthusiasm with friends? Be sensible! The poor child is six years old and hasn't shown any disciplinary problems. Treat him with respect and make sure that the punishment fits the crime (if indeed bringing a Cub Scout tool to school can be called a "crime").

There's no denying that some children bring weapons to school with the intention of causing trouble. There's also no denying that we all want to protect our children from violence and that we must be vigilant to ensure that no one slips through the cracks. Zachary, however, slipped through the cracks of common sense when school officials thought it appropriate to suspend a six-year-old for bringing his camping utensil to school. Perhaps next time the school will follow the Cub Scout Law of the Pack, and "give goodwill" to children who obviously meant no harm.

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