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Monday, January 3, 2011

The Gray Between Black And White

Some days are easier to create Blog posts than others. On those days when nothing readily jumps out from school as a topic for a post I find myself reflecting back on experiences in my career, or scanning the news for topics which offer interesting opportunities for discussion. That is, educationally related subjects that often present opposing viewpoints and warrant examination. There are many to choose from. In the case of this Blog post I have had personal experience with the issue and it has appeared in recent news stories.

I worked as a principal in a school district years ago that developed a number of narrowly drafted and clearly defined zero tolerance policies. It was felt that a district of that size (approximately 31,000 learners and 5,000 staff members)  required clarity and specific policies to govern the operation of the system and avoid the possible anarchy resulting from so many different teachers and administrators acting on and interpreting guidelines on their own accord. I don't dispute the need for governing parameters, there have to be certain boundaries. I'm just opposed to the severe limitations of zero tolerance policies that prevent people implementing the rules from exercising discretion and accommodating extenuating circumstances and exceptional situations. Rules are not the center of this Blog. Rather, the subject is the scope and form of the decision making process regarding apparent zero tolerance guidelines.

Staff members at all levels of schools everywhere (including myself as an employee in that particular district years ago) have perhaps found themselves applying a rule they found to be awkward or outdated. People implementing a policy are merely following expectations themselves, often lacking the individual means to precipitate or assert change. I am not advocating an elimination of rules or consequences. Instead, I am suggesting that schools review existing guidelines and maintain a flexible and responsive attitude toward the implementation of rules without compromising the intent or integrity of policies. I'll use a real life example from another school district to illustrate the point of contention.

Leadership is not easy nor is it for the faint of heart. I have served in a formal leadership capacity since becoming a full time principal thirty-four years ago. That alone doesn't ensure success or make me immune from critics of my decisions. I have rendered countless decisions over the years, not all of them correct - not even close. However, I have learned several things along the path of this leadership odyssey. Among them, life is rarely black and white. There is a lot of gray. There are usually unanticipated and unexpected exceptions to virtually any and every rule. This is why I am opposed to the fairly frequent invocation of zero tolerance guidelines prevailing in many schools.

While zero tolerance policies may evolve out of an interest of fairness, that is, everyone will be treated equally if they bring a weapon to school or a drug to school, they can end up appearing unwieldy and ricochet on those exercising rule enforcement. Let me offer just one example that many of you may be familiar with as a result of the media firestorm that followed stories on the case.

This example, from October of last school year involves a six-year old boy in Delaware who brought a camping utensil that can serve as a knife, fork and spoon to school to use during lunch . I have excerpted the following from the news article on the boy and his camping utensil:

"But, based on the code of conduct for the Christina School District, (in the state of Delaware) where Zachary is a first grader, school officials had no choice. They had to suspend him because, “regardless of possessor’s intent,” knives are banned."  Further in the same article, it reads, "For Delaware, Zachary’s case is especially frustrating because last year state lawmakers tried to make disciplinary rules more flexible by giving local boards authority to, “on a case-by-case basis, modify the terms of the expulsion.
The law was introduced after a third-grade girl was expelled for a year because her grandmother had sent a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it. (underlined for my emphasis) The teacher called the principal — but not before using the knife to cut and serve the cake.
In Zachary’s case, the state’s new law did not help because it mentions only expulsion and does not explicitly address suspensions. A revised law is being drafted to include suspensions."

There is no question that the basis of the rule is certainly understandable, particularly in light of evidence of school violence. Also, an innocent well intentioned child might mistakenly bring a knife to school that could fall into the hands of someone with entirely different motives. I agree with reasonable and practical measures enacted to provide safe and orderly school environments. I also agree that there are certain non-negotiable policies necessary in society. The rule regarding weapons in the Delaware school district is meant to ensure safety and to exact fairness. It appears very responsible on paper. Unfortunately, the nature of the restrictive interpretation and subsequent enforcement leaves no room for a case by case analysis of the individual's disciplinary history, existence of any motive, context of the situation... and the absence of assessing incidents on a case by case basis may indeed be more irresponsible than responsible. The following paragraph also appeared in the referenced new article, and explains a problem with zero tolerance guidelines.

The result of those studies is that more school districts have removed discretion in applying the disciplinary policies to avoid criticism of being biased,” said Ronnie Casella, an associate professor of education at Central Connecticut State University who has written about school violence. He added that there is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer.
Other school districts are also trying to address problems they say have stemmed in part from overly strict zero-tolerance policies."

How did this case turn out? Shortly after the media attention the proposed 45 day suspension was over turned. Here's a couple of paragraphs from a follow-up article in the CBS News: "The seven-member Christina School Board voted unanimously to reduce the punishment for kindergartners and first-graders who take weapons to school or commit violent offenses to a suspension ranging from three to five days." And later in the article, "School board member John Mackenzie told The Associated Press before the meeting that he was surprised school officials did not use common sense and disregard the policy in Zachary's case. The need for common sense to prevail over the letter of the law was a recurring theme among the boy's supporters and school safety experts.

"When that common sense is missing, it sends a message of inconsistency to students, which actually creates a less safe environment," said Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm. "People have to understand that assessing on a case-by-case basis doesn't automatically equate to being soft or unsafe

I'll admit it's much easier to simply enact a zero tolerance policy and respond to critics by emphatically stating - "Sorry, there's nothing I can do - it's the policy." How simple and black and white. Virtually anyone who can read can interpret and apply the guideline. End of discussion. that's the way it is. But the world of leadership often exists within a gray environment where situations are dynamic and non-linear, unique and as potentially different as each individual. Yes, there will be claims of bias, favoritism, and a lack of fairness if discipline is meted out unevenly among perpetrators. That's likely the case. But not all cases are the same when they are examined. Personal history, context, motive, circumstances and perceptions all conspire to make rendering decisions difficult - but as I said earlier in this Blog. Leadership is never easy nor is it for the faint of heart. What's right should trump Who's right. I'll live with skeptics questioning my integrity for taking the time and effort to conduct a careful analysis of the variables involved in an issue and subsequently crafting a decision, or critics who claim favoritism. That's morally more palatable to my conscience than always opting for a quick "if-then" consequence based on a zero tolerance policy that disregards any and all individual factors contributing to the case, such as the incident with the six-year old in the article above.

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