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Schools’ Policy Pendulum Is Swinging

Schools in the early and mid 1900′s were strict.  They had rigid policies regarding appropriate classroom behaviors, and teachers and administration were empowered to hold students accountable when their behaviors did not conform to the schools’ policies.  Order in the classroom was maintained, but students often felt harshly treated.  Students typically did not feel nor did they even expect to feel like their personal struggles could be heard, accepted, or accommodated by their schools.  Time passed, and schools became more lenient.  Teachers and administration, per schools’ revised policies, took a more flexible and understanding approach to errant student behaviors.  A student who was acting out may be referred to the guidance office to talk through his difficulties at home or his acting out may be allowed to persist as a reasonable accommodation to his disability (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).   Order in the classroom suffered, but students’ personal struggles were heard and accommodated (if not accepted as well).  Now, however, due to a spate of incidents of school violence in recent years, schools are returning to stricter policies regarding appropriate classroom behaviors.  These policies, typically referred to as “zero tolerance policies”, represent schools’ policy pendulum swinging back to a prior and stricter time.  Is it best for schools to be strict or lenient?  Read on for more.

Aggregate human behavior tends to vacillate between extremes over time.  For example, American culture had a very conservative social climate in the early 1950′s and a very liberal social climate in the late in1960′s and early 1970′s.   Schools are not immune to this phenomenon.  While the vacillation appears necessary to the course of human events, it is generally not without strife.  In this author’s opinion, a mid-ground position is usually best, and it certainly is advisable regarding school policies on appropriate classroom behavior.  Policies that are too rigid (i.e., zero tolerance policies) do not allow for the “shades of gray” that come with real-life experience.  For example, a zero tolerance policy on guns in school should not get an elementary school student expelled when he merely draws a picture of a gun.  Lenient policies (i.e., granting a “reasonable” accommodation to a student’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) should not make learning more difficult for every other student in the classroom.  The mid-ground approach would suggest that you consider the circumstances in each case and make a determination that is appropriate for the unique facts of each situation.  For the grade school student who drew a picture of a gun, perhaps the teacher should visit with the student to see what motivated him to draw the gun.  The teacher should assess whether the student has been exhibiting other signs of trouble (i.e., schoolyard fights, absenteeism, dropping grades, etc.).  If the student is behaving acceptably in all respects other than the drawing of the gun, and the student explains that his brother just got his first gun to go hunting so that’s why the gun was on the student’s mind, then the teacher would be well advised to let the student know that guns (even drawings of guns) are not accepted in the classroom.  A simple reminder of school policy may be all that’s needed in this situation.  Regarding the student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, accommodating his disability is not only federally required but also a moral imperative.  However, the specific accommodation granted should consider the needs of both the disabled student and the student body as a whole.  If one student gains at the expense of all the other students, that is not a win.  That is a net loss.  Therefore, provide the accommodation that best suits the disabled student without impairing the other students’ ability to learn.  If no mid-ground accommodation exists in this classroom, then an alternate classroom with one-on-one attention should be provided.  Many larger school systems already have special needs teachers and classrooms available for students who are better suited for non-traditional classroom environments.

In sum, while aggregate human behavior tends to vacillate between extremes over time, individual humans and small groups of humans (i.e., school systems) are well advised to avoid extremes and set their policies in the mid-ground, neither strict nor lenient, with an individualized assessment for each circumstance and consideration for all involved.

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