I hate the Zero Tolerance policy in schools.
My son, who's just six, is getting the message that it is okay for others to push, hit, kick and bully him as long as they don't get caught, that he is not allowed to use force to defend himself, that he must tell a teacher or other authority figure at the school, and that when he does so, the message he receives is, "If I didn't see it happen, I can't do anything about it."
This is Zero Tolerance?
My son has reported on several occasions that "older boys" have pushed him down, shoved his face in the snow repeatedly, and hit and kicked him repeatedly, and that the issue was not addressed when he told a teacher or other school authority. Now, he's not a consistent target or victim of physical threats, aggression or bullying, but he has said on more than one occasion, "I don't want to get in trouble for fighting because my teacher told me I have to get hit ten times before I can fight back, but I don't like being hit by the bigger kids."
Of course, I know schools don't think it's ok for one child to initiate hurting another child, yet a Zero Tolerance policy effectively castrates everyone - children, educators, parents - by not allowing our children to learn in school that force is a last resort, but if necessary, needs to be employed wisely and effectively. I teach my kids to work towards compromise, that force is a last resort and that it can and should be avoided through verbal conflict resolution. I further teach my children that if they have to use force they should do so only to escape and prevent the perpetration of further aggression and violence on him/her and/or others.
But I don't think it's okay for my children believe it is all right for anyone to incidentally, continually, consistently and/or persistently threaten their safety or invade their physical boundaries. In spite of the "Zero Tolerance" policy schools have adopted, I continue to teach them and give them the message (after reinforcing the difference between aggression and accidents that happen during physical play) that they should: 1st, walk away from the aggression and tell a teacher or other school authority; 2nd, if the aggression continues, they should attempt to compromise and work it out with the aggressor; 3rd, if the aggression pattern continues further they should verbally assert their physical boundaries by yelling "STOP" or "NO"; 4th, if the aggression pattern continues, they should fight back as hard as they can using physical force if they are being physically hurt and threatened, and then remove themselves from the situation and get help from a trusted adult as quickly as possible.
Honestly, my child's sense of self-esteem and safety are worth far more than the risk of suspension or expulsion from school, although it's so clearly wrong that such a choice is forced on parents.
If martial arts were mandated as part of our national curriculum our children would be taught non-violent conflict resolution skills, violence and aggression as a last resort, wise and efficient use of force, and the importance and practice of physical and mental discipline, fitness and health. Hey, I can dream!
Zero Tolerance negates the learning of effective assertiveness while creating an atmosphere and environment in which aggression and violence are not appropriately addressed and The Law of the Jungle becomes the covert but primary message. The evidence shows that aggression and violence in schools have escalated despite Zero Tolerance policies. As we all learn in the kitchen and in cutting our lawns, a dull and neglected blade is far more dangerous and ineffective than a sharp and properly maintained blade.
Not only is a Zero Tolerance policy an ineffective way to establish and maintain a safe and realistically ordered learning environment, it is also counter to my personal, parental, and family beliefs and values and sets up an unnecessary and counterproductive conflict between many parents and the school—between most parents and most schools—and can leave my son, and other children, in a state of uncertainty, distrust and confusion about their worth and safety.
It's not right that my son should not fear punishment for using force to clearly set his boundaries with other children or people when they are threatening or physically invading his boundaries, and he should not have to deal with mixed messages between his parents and school authorities while at school.
It is interesting that our national position on school aggression, violence and bullying is so blatantly incongruent with our national position on how far out of the way we can send our military to kill others who have successfully killed some of in a vain attempt to prevent those others from killing any more of us, while at the same time we practice not physically defending defenseless people who are being killed at the genocidal level in places that don't have anything coveted by us. It is also interesting that both extremes, our tyrannical national position and our Zero Tolerance educational position, lead uselessly to even more ineffective and unnecessary violence and aggression.
Aggression and violence are part of life, and they will always be so, and it is a great disservice to our children to give them the message that they are incapable of being responsible for their own safety and the safety of others. It is a great disservice to effectively castrate our children and force them into victim mentality and behaviors.
Actually, my son handles these mixed messages very well. He's a very caring, kind and earnest boy. He's concerned with doing what's good and helpful. He asks me about these inconsistencies because he sees that they don't make sense and because he feels he's being told something different than what he knows is best. He has a good sense of self-worth and he knows the underlying, if perhaps unintentional or misguided, message of the school is that rules and authority are more important than his safety, that he's incapable of judging when to use force, and that, if he does use force to stop someone from hurting him or someone else, the reason for his use of force was irrelevant and he is no different than those initiating aggression and violence. He knows, in his own six-year-old way, that he is being put in an inappropriate and unacceptable position.
This relatively minor, but important concern we have about my son, is simply a reflection of the cultural message we are giving our children through our educational institutions, particularly to our boys, about their natural, good and valuable instinct for, and love of, survival, competition, and the importance and value of fighting for what's good and right individually and collectively.
We are raising generations full of more and more dull, neglected blades that are dangerous to themselves, our culture and the world. If we don't teach our boys how to temper their aggression into the capacity for assertiveness, physical and otherwise, in the service of what is good and life-affirming for themselves and the rest of us, they will continue to feel shame about their innate and valuable survival and competition instinct, conceal their weapons and go off half-cocked, trigger-happy and feeling powerless and castrated into a world that they see primarily as threatening and opposing to them.
Culturally, we act shocked at the violence of our male youth, yet we are responsible for giving them little other choice. One definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome.
We can see the results of this all around us in child and adolescent behavior: gangs, substance abuse, risky and abusive sex, teenage pregnancy, and the list goes on... And we can see what happens in our country (and world) when we allow adult males who see the world as an unsupervised playground through immature adolescent glasses that is either to be dominated or feared to lead us. The instinct that is expressed as destruction, aggression and violence in the world is the same instinct that protects and serves life.
I see the results in of this cultural and Zero Tolerance school problem in most, if not all, of the boys and male adolescents referred from schools or from the legal system into my services as a psychologist. I see the underlying identity and self-esteem wounds that our cultural messages cause boys. I see the pain, violence, defiance, anger, resentment, depression and destructiveness to self and others that is a result of the messages we give our boys. These messages should not be tolerated in our schools, yet we continue to perpetrate the very violence on our boys that we attempt to force out of them with our Zero Tolerance practices.
If the cultural points I make seem out of proportion to the concerns I have for my child in one elementary school then it's important to remember that, after the home, the schools are where our children spend the most time, and where they receive their earliest societal and cultural messages, and the schools are a reflection of our best cultural thinking and values on many levels besides education.
That should frighten us all.
I happen to be a member of a growing group of parents who can no longer, in good conscience, allow our educational system and institutions to be the primary educators of our children. We have chosen to use school as a supplement to home education and we know that we do not have to depend on schools to educate our children. We also know that the institution and system are not necessarily a reflection on or of the talented and dedicated educators attempting to work within it.
It seems to me that schools are losing the war through attrition and friendly fire.