"Zero tolerance" school practices vs. "critical thinking"

Zachary Christie is now a free boy – sort of. The 6-year-old won’t have to spend 45 days in an alternative school for troublemakers, but he’ll still be suspended from first grade for 3 to 5 days for his “crime” of bringing his Cub Scout camping utensil to school.

One of the Boy Scouts all-purpose camping utensils
One of the Boy Scouts all-purpose camping utensils

Zachary – who you can see here in a film he did last year titled “What is my job??” – is obviously a hardened criminal who wanted to stab someone with the knife from his combo fork-knife-spoon Cub Scout tool. Or, maybe he was just a 6-year-old boy excited about showing the coolest thing since video games to his friends.  But due to zero tolerance policies at his schools (and oh so many other schools), the administrators believed they had no choice but to suspend the kiddo because the district policy for the Christina School District in Delaware bans all knives “regardless of possessor’s intent.”

And here’s where critical thinking comes in. I’m currently in a teacher education program, preparing for life after journalism as a state-certified high school teacher. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve come across the term “critical thinking” in my reams of reading for my classes. The texts emphasize that teachers must help students develop critical thinking skills and that teachers must be “reflective” critical thinkers. We aren’t supposed to make knee-jerk decisions because, well, those kinds of decisions rarely take into consideration all the facts.

Instead, we’re supposed to carefully observe a situation, give our observations some critical thought, then arrive at the best answer to a problem. We’re encouraged to think not only of the short-term consequences of our actions (little boy learns to never bring sporkife to school), but also the long-term effects (little boy spends 45 days in alternative schools for hooligans learning all sorts of negative skills from the experts of the mean streets).

This critical thinking helps teachers and other school officials arrive at the most prudent decision for any particular situation, and (bonus!!) the modeling of such critical thinking helps students learn to think critically, examining not only short-term gains (popularity) but also long-term consequences (detention).

So tell me, how do zero tolerance policies reflect critical thinking? Those of you who answered, “They don’t” can move to the front of the class. These policies came about in part because of school shootings and in part to deal with drugs on campus. But the problem with them is they ignore everything educators know about child development – especially early child development – and they leave no wiggle room for thinking critically about a particular situation.

Sure, we don’t want weapons or drugs at school, but we have to use our brains to tell the difference between a Cub Scout “weapon” and a machete and we have to moderate our “punishments” in the proper manner. How about just telling Zachary, “Hey, buddy, that is a very cool thing, but the knife is sharp and someone could get hurt, so we can’t have that at school. I’ll keep it here and we can call your mom and she can pick it up.” Then, if he brought the verboten item to school again, officials would know there’s a problem, bring in the parents and school counselor and try to figure out an appropriate discipline.

That course takes a lot more time (and thought) than just saying, “Page two of the handbook says ….” but any critically thinking human being can see it is the right thing to do.

Ironically, the Delaware Legislature tried unsuccessfully last year to make disciplinary rules more flexible so local boards could modify the “terms of expulsion” on a case-by-case basis, according to reporting by the New York Times. That attempt came after a third grader was expelled for a year (!!!) because her grandmother sent a birthday cake to school with a knife to cut it.

Folks who enforce zero tolerance rules are folks who’ve skipped right over the critical-thinking advice in the teacher education classes. They are like lemmings running off a cliff in a misguided attempt to “keep schools safe.” But in that attempt, they’re making those safe schools look awfully stupid.

8 Replies to “"Zero tolerance" school practices vs. "critical thinking"”

  1. The story you linked to states that 40 per cent of ninth graders in Milwaukee were suspended at least once during the 2006-7 school year and that about 12 per cent of the students in the Baltimore schools were suspended at least once during that year.  This really sounds like reactive discipline: misbehavior – suspension.  Critical thinking doesn’t seem to apply to school discipline. But it is so much harder to explain policies and practices when the decision-making process isn’t linear.

    So Renee – how do we fix the sytem?


  2. This would be domething that i know about.  I’ve been an administrator in a school district for fifteen years at the district office.  I’m not an educator by trade.  I’m a technologist.  When I observe the real world things that happen here with zero tolerance, I notice that the policy does exactly the opposite of what we want it to do.  We are beginning to run our schools for the bad kids.  Zero tolerance is a cop out.  If a good kid does something stupid but does not represent a continuing threat to the community, he should get to use his “get out of jail free card”.  Kids who work hard every day, never have a discipline referal and contribute to the community get a “get out of jail free card”.  Kids who disrupt school, get multiple discipline referals and bring shame on the community don’t get one.  That way – we tell the good kids that there is a reason to be good and we tell the bad kids the same thing.  Zero tolerance tells the bad kids there is no reason to be good and unfortunately we tell the bad kids that there is no reason to be good.  A bit too simplistic – i agree but i see it every day.  Sometimes a second chance makes a huge difference in a kids life.
    ….. one man’s opinion


    1. oops… not domething (old fingers) and the second to last sentance should read – Zero tolerance tells the bad kids there is no reason to be good and unfortunately we tell the GOOD kids that there is no reason to be good.


  3. this is why we home schooled.

    we have a zero tolerance for gulags …… aka, public schools. the future of our children was in our hands and not in the hands of neo-morons. they turned out great.


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