Happy Students: Replace ‘zero-tolerance’ with empathy, listening to kids

Charles Jackard
Charles Jackard
By Charles Jackard, EdD

Since the 1980s, the phrase “zero-tolerance” has signified a philosophy toward illegal conduct that favors strict imposition of penalties, regardless of individual circumstances. The American Psychological Zero-Tolerance Task Force concluded, “Since the early 1990s, the national discourse on school discipline has been dominated by the philosophy of zero tolerance.”

Supporters of zero-tolerance policies contend that they promote safety and well being of students and send a powerful message of deterrence. Critics of zero-tolerance believe that inflexible discipline policies produce harmful results.

School administrators have failed to use common sense in applying zero-tolerance, leading to suspension and expulsion of students for possession of nail files, paper clips, organic cough drops, model rockets, 5-inch plastic axes, plastic knives, inhalers for asthma, aspirin, and water guns, for example.

Since many schools began implementing zero tolerance, the dropout rate has increased dramatically. Colin Powell said that “a shocking 30 percent of young people drop out of high school today.” In effect we lose an entire graduating class every three years.

The minute students are expelled, there are negative outside sources that will accept them. Research has shown that many of these dropouts make the choice to join some type of gang. In the largest cities or the smallest of towns, gangs are everywhere. Many entice teens yearning for a connection with anyone willing to listen and understand them. Many of the expelled students are angry with schools and society.

I fully understand some students have to be expelled for the safety of other students. But as educators, we must determine which needs are not being met in students’ lives. Only then will we see an improvement in the motivation and achievement of our students and educators.

Today we are legislating, medicating, and incarcerating as a solution to the many problems in our schools and society. This isn’t working. Carl Rogers said, “Empathy, being genuine and unconditional love will not only raise the IQ but will assist with student achievement and behavior.”

Having problems doesn’t make a society or school bad. Denying that problems exist is the critical issue. We must get out of denial and listen to our youth, parents and educators. Only then can we begin to find solutions to the problems.

Leawood resident Charles Jackard is an education expert and the former principal of Horizons Academy in northeast Johnson County. You can read more of his work on his website here.