Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Common Sense Approach to the Theory of the Broken Window and Zero Tolerance

I have read a couple of interesting articles the last couple of days where schools have taken the drastic step of suspending very young students for playing with pretend guns. According to the Des Moines Register, a youngster was suspended for making a 'terroristic threat' with a bubble gun. The little girl in question was five years old. The articles I read were riddled with such examples. How about a student using a 'finger gun'? Suspended. 

The reason: Zero Tolerance. Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, there have been more and more instances like these where students have been suspended by schools. Is this an overreaction? Well, on its face it certainly seem to be. Suspending young elementary students for pointing their finger at someone does not fall under the jurisdiction of our Zero Tolerance Policy. Our policy says the following:
Students found to possess a weapon, a look-a-like weapon or other dangerous objects may be suspended for up to 3 days by the principal and longer by permission of the superintendent depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident and the student’s record.  Any student bringing a firearm or bomb to school or possessing firearms or bombs at school will be expelled for up to but not limited to one year.  Parents/guardians of students found in violation of this policy will be contacted and the students will be reported to law enforcement officials (p.33).
The key words in the policy are 'look-a-like weapon'. Obviously this requires the use of common sense rationale on the part of school officials.  Last time I looked at my index finger it looked nothing like a weapon, and likewise most bubble guns do not look like real weapons. But there may be instances where toy guns look like real guns and thus the policy would apply. For the policy to work properly, it requires logic and common sense. Admittedly I (and none of us) know the full circumstances of the examples described in the newspaper articles referenced above. There may be other variables at play we are unaware of. When it comes to student discipline, the general public very rarely knows the full story because student discipline records are protected by FERPA.

In any event, the larger issue is wrapped around school safety, what schools should do to keep students safe, and finally whether or not zero tolerance policies are effective. In past articles we have debated school safety, and in our district the Board of Directors continues to discuss where security and safety enhancements should be made. In the last couple of weeks, we have conducted a lock down drill, the first time ever with students. During that drill we were able to identify areas where improvements can be made and are in the process of doing so. These are great exercises and discussions for our district to engage in. Undoubtedly we will be able to make strategic and well thought out improvements as a result. 

In reference to whether or not zero tolerance policies work, I think the answer is dependent on the ultimate goal. If for example, the policy is to permanently remove a student for crossing a 'red line' (i.e. bringing a firearm onto school grounds), then yes the policy is effective. After all, students who bring firearms are expelled immediately (by law). If the purpose is to punish young kindergarten students for playing with squirt and finger guns, then I think it is an overreach.

The Detroit Free Press explains that zero tolerance policies have their roots in the 'Broken Window Theory'. In its simplicity, the theory states that a neighborhood where many buildings and houses are run down and have broken windows, then more windows will end up broken as a result. This suggests subconsciously that no one is paying attention, and there are so many broken windows it must be the accepted norm. Likewise in a neighborhood without broken windows, it is much more unlikely to occur (broken windows) because the subconscious suggestion is that vandalism is an unaccepted societal norm. (For the purposes of time and space I am taking only painting a description of the theory with broad strokes.)

When Rudy Giuliani was Mayor of New York City, he put the theory into practice by setting a goal to reduce crime in the city. While crime rates fell nationwide during his time in office, in New York City they fell at a much  more dramatic rate. How? Well, among many strategies employed, they began prosecuting minor crimes, for example aggressive panhandling, graffiti, and turnstile jumping. The theory states that if we tackle the small stuff, then the big stuff will not happen. 

At the very least, corollary evidence would suggest the theory has merit. However, as school officials we must make certain that when applying the broken window theory and zero tolerance, a common sense  approach prevails. 

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