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.
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.