Zero tolerance

1. Strong discipline is vital for schools. Schools should be allowed to determine the ethos of the school and hence the standards of behaviour that is expected of pupils and staff.
2. Schools should have the ability to punish pupils for misdemeanours including and up to permanent exclusion. However, parents should have the right to challenge the school to ask that the punishment is fair, proportionate and reasonable. Schools apply the civil standard of proof in deciding on the guilt or otherwise of a pupil and their punishment according to the school’s published behaviour policy. Once a decision is made that should be final. The only reason a parent should be able to challenge this is if a permanent exclusion has been applied as this is a termination of the agreement between the school and the pupil/parent to educate and care for the child.
3. Teachers should be expected to apply the schools behaviour policy consistently under guidance and scrutiny from senior staff. Decisions should be transparent and made clear to parents and pupil.
4. However, zero tolerance is not a sensible approach. This does not allow for discretion. With any rules based system discretion is key to allowing room for manoeuvre in dealing with pupils.
5. When is a weapon not a weapon? When the intent to use it to cause deliberate harm is not there. Hence, zero tolerance on bringing weapons into school is going to put the school in an invidious position. This is why pupils should be allowed to justify their actions and answer a charge made against them. Mitigating circumstances need to be taken into account and should be sought if the consequences are very serious for the child. The same should be true of accusations made against staff.
6. Punishment is not the end of the matter. Schooling means dealing with the child and modelling out the behaviour expected.
7. Racist language is not always racist. If a child uses the word nigger, does that mean they are racist? What was the intent behind the use of the word. Did they understand the word and its cultural meaning? How can you equate an ignorant 11 year old with a member of the KKK? In fact, accusing a child of being racist could have worse consequences for a child than inappropriate use of language.
8. We are schooling children. It is well to understand what that means. We are not holding children to the same standard of responsibility as adults. We are protecting them from their actions and ensuring they learn from their mistakes until they are deemed old enough to both have the rights and responsibilities that go with adulthood.
9. On the other hand, once a child has been reprimanded, had their behaviour scrutinised and challenged there comes a point where we would definitely accept that there is a rejection of the path to redemption and a turn away from the path set out before them. At this point, they no longer deserve or care about our protection and we should be prepared to walk away from our duty of care for the individual in favour of the care of the school as a whole. There is a limit to how much we can be expected to try to reform a child. At this point, we will have ended our responsibility for the child’s schooling. It should be beholden upon us as a school to show that we have tried to show the child the error of his/her ways. Exceptional circumstances may make this impossible and need an instant response.
10. The point about zero tolerance is that it means the school eschews its role as carer and takes no notice of the sometimes tough journey young people have to make to become responsible adults. The consequences of rejecting that role for schooling individuals is that we tend to devalue pupils and use a standard of behaviour more closely associated with shopping mall security guards rather than that which you would wish for your own children. It becomes behaviour for behaviour’s sake rather than for the education of the person we wish the pupils could become. On the other hand, it may serve to calm down a situation which would otherwise be unmanageable. In that regard, I think it is a weapon in a school’s armoury to be used when appropriate. I just don’t think it should be an end in itself.
David Perks