Growing Up With No Margin for Error

Growing Up With No Margin for Error
Posted by FoM on November 13, 1999 at 15:22:16 PT
By Alex Kotlowitz
Source: New York Times
Our perception of adolescence has, in recent years, become muddled. Are teenagers still emotionally maturing children, or are they miniature versions of fully formed adults? 
For crimes ranging from murder to drug possession, we now routinely try children as adults, and sentences are meted out according to the crime without any consideration for the child's situation. Nothing exemplifies this confusion more than the zero-tolerance policies that more and more public schools think will keep students in line. Simply put, zero tolerance means that if a student is caught breaking certain rules -- from smoking cigarettes to carrying weapons -- the punishment is swift and often preordained, not unlike the determinate sentencing we see in the adult criminal courts. In Tennessee, for example, it has been reported that the number of students expelled for zero-tolerance offenses quadrupled from 1994 to 1997. We have been sickened by the spate of school shootings, Columbine High School in Colorado being the most terrifying. But in our scramble to make our schools safer, have we become intolerant of our children's mistakes, of their errors in judgment? It goes without saying that our first priority has to be safety, and so in the case of weapons we must and should take a hard line. But what about fisticuffs or beer-drinking or possession of a small amount of marijuana? In adolescence, shouldn't there be some room for missteps? Isn't that what the very term "growing up" suggests? By now, most Americans who watch television news have seen the short videotape taken in September at a high school football game in Decatur, Ill. It shows a group of African-American students throwing punches at one another as they stumble through the bleachers, colliding with other students and parents with young children. No one was seriously injured, yet the school board, under its zero-tolerance policy for fighting, expelled six students for two years (a seventh voluntarily left school), making no plans for them to attend alternative institutions. In effect, the board told these children to take a walk. No one could possibly condone the actions of these six teenagers. (Jesse Jackson, whose presence in Decatur last week brought this story to light, issued an unfortunate apologia: that the fight was no worse than the bruising play between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat.) And almost everyone agrees that the boys should be punished in some manner. But as we've come to view our adolescents as either potential victims or menaces to society, we've lost the flexibility to respond to our children as individuals. We're told, for example, that some of the students involved in the brawl had solid grade-point averages while others had dismally poor attendance records and, according to one school official, three were "third-year freshmen." Don't those facts suggest that each of these children might need a different kind of guidance? Under pressure from Mr. Jackson, and then from the governor of Illinois, George Ryan, the school board reduced the punishment to a one-year suspension, with the option of attending an alternative school. But that, too, seems unwise, at least applied across the board. After being away for a year, some of these students would undoubtedly not find their way back to complete school, and on the street they are likely to find few moral guideposts. A compromise has been floated, one that would permit the boys to attend an alternative school until January, when they would be evaluated for readmission. Mr. Jackson reportedly supports this compromise, but the school board has yet to respond. Last week, the local prosecutor filed juvenile petitions against some of the boys. In the juvenile courts they will probably receive probation and be entered into a program that helps get them back on track. In other words, the juvenile justice system may offer them more of a guiding hand than the school. So many children skate along the margins, and statistics reflect that: in the 1996-97 school year, 454,000 students dropped out. Perhaps schools need to search for more imaginative ways to both punish and reform. Expulsion may at times be a necessity, especially when the safety of the school community is threatened, but let us not tie our hands under the politically popular banner of zero tolerance, which in the end leaves administrators with few if any options. After all, adolescence is an opportune time to try to mold people into morally responsible human beings. I will always remember what Ted Sizer, the educator, once told me about educating children: "It takes time, it takes patience, it takes the willingness to make exceptions."Alex Kotlowitz, a writer for Tthe New Yorker, is the author of "The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death and America's Dilemma." Published: November 13, 1999Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company Related Articles & Web Sites:Family Watch A.C.L.U. To Sue Over Student Drug Testing - 8/18/99
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