Archive for February 19th, 2010


Punishment Beyond the Crime, Way Beyond!

February 19, 2010

Alexa’s thoughts were no different from most twelve-year old girls that morning, thoughts about her friends and how much she cared for them.  Nothing at the start of her school day at  Forest Junior High (School 190), in Queens, New York led her to believe it would end with her being handcuffed and hauled away to the local police station.  Of course, when you commit a crime that is what happens.  Alexa Gonzalez’s crime – doodling “I love my friends Abby and Faith.  Lex was here 2/1/10” along with a smiley face, with a marker on her desk.

After the initial shock of hearing a twelve-year old girl winds up in custody of the police for something this trivial, it is easy to think there must be more to it.  Maybe she was out of control – nope.  Perhaps she had drugs on her – think again.  It must be she had done this time and time again – not even that.  By all accounts, Alexa is a normal well-behaved young lady who simply had a lapse of judgment.  How have we come to a place were school systems are so dysfunctional, the police become involved for the smallest infraction?

When I was in seventh grade, I remember being paddled for saying the word “damn” in class.  I did not even make it to the principal’s office, the teacher handled things right then and there.  Of course, I was given the choice of going “down the hall,” as it was called, or taking my corporal punishment.  I took my licks, returned to my desk and went back to work learning, case closed.  Rather than debate corporal punishment, I heard some of you gasp when you read that, the larger point is a minor infraction was dealt with quickly and effectively and normality resumed in the class.  By not addressing small infractions at low levels of authority, that resumption of normality is what is lacking today.

A student finding herself tangled up with the law seems commonplace today and happens coast-to-coast (click here to read a West coast example).  Before we criticize the school system, we need to understand their point of view.  Parents often sue school systems when they take corrective action and the systems become gun-shy regarding discipline.  Schools have a legitimate responsibility to provide for the safety of each student and student body, as a whole.

The line we ask them to walk, with regard to discipline, is thin, very thin.  Over time, we’ve lost something, or forgotten it.  When we send our children to school, in addition to educating them, the school fills a quasi-parental role during that time.  To that end, a level of order and civility must be maintained, requiring the schools to provide parental-style guidance when called for.

Does this mean we allow schools to beat our children, of course not.  In the case of doodling, even Alexa expected punishment, something along the lines of detention or cleaning all the desks in class.  When schools loose the ability to exercise judgment regarding various levels of punishment for small infractions, we end up with the draconian result of a “zero-tolerance” policy.  Effectively, schools have turned over all matters of discipline to the police department, which is not equipped or trained in the areas of child development or education.

We give the school systems the responsibility to educate our children; a large portion of our tax dollars goes to that end.  With responsibility comes rights, schools have a right to expect our children to behave and follow the rules that allow for education to take place.  When one child disrupts a class, the disruption affects the other children.  We need balance, we need a way that allows schools to function, and infractions dealt with at the lowest level.

Alexa paid the price of a society that is out of balance.  For the high crime of drawing on a desk, she wound up in the custody of the police.  Who benefited… not Alexa, not the other students or the school system, not even the police.  The answer is nobody gained anything.  The system must change and that change has to restore to schools the ability to punish students that break the rules.  Let’s accept that corporal punishment is off the table.  If not that, then what?  What tools are we to give schools that allow them to maintain order and not worry about ending up with a lawsuit?  This is the debate that needs to take place before we end up with all our children having police records for simply being tardy.

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