Zero Tolerance: A Student’s Perspective

By Mykal Washington, Intern, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Mykal Washington, sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus

Mykal Washington, sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus

In my fifteen years of living, it is only now that I realize that I and countless others are being victimized by a policy known as “zero tolerance.” Zero tolerance policies use predetermined punishments for specific violations and dishes out those punishments, completely disregarding the severity of the offense. A student could have politely disagreed with a teacher or said “no” in response to something a teacher instructed him to do. But it matters not because under zero tolerance policy, any challenge to a teacher is to be met with an automatic suspension.

A teen’s education is nothing to be trifled with. Minor offenses should not cause a student to miss school because it interferes with something precious – their education. The system of predetermined punishment, a.k.a. zero tolerance, does exactly this. Does this contribute to the learning process? School is supposed to be a place where children from all walks of life come to learn and further their knowledge. Mistakes allow us to recognize our faults and wrongdoings, thus bettering us as people and individuals. To punish us for every little mistake we make is to prevent us from growing. Children need to learn from their mistakes, rather than be removed from a learning environment.

This constant feeling of being watched for every move you make becomes stressful rather fast. It makes me, and I’m pretty sure a great deal of other students, feel as though school is our enemy, thus not encouraging us to be enthusiastic about attending. Is this the true purpose of the school system? At my school, Mastery Charter School Lenfest Campus, there are a number of different methods to mete out punishments, with the most prominent being the demerit system. Students at my school are required to carry around a demerit card with our school ID badges. The card lists categories of trivial and minor violations ranging from chewing gum, improper uniform (like having your shirt untucked), disruption, lateness, body language, language, disrespect, environment (e.g. leaving a workspace unkempt), integrity, and being unprepared. This long list puts students in a constant state of high alert, making us wary of every single thing we do. In my opinion offenses as trivial as simply saying “no” to teachers or disagreeing with them are not offenses worthy of a missed day of education. To my peers and me, this situation is absolutely unacceptable. It is sending a message to the world that education takes a back seat to talking back, that education takes a back seat to throwing a paper ball across the room, that education takes a back seat to an untucked shirt.

Besides these categories there is a wide range of offenses that “warrant” even greater punishment, like suspension, and I would know, considering I committed one. I was in 9th grade, and a fellow student and I were heatedly debating something when he suddenly threw a paper plate at me (we were at lunch). My first instinct was to throw the plate back, which I did. In the following moments I was swiftly suspended and missed a total of two days from my education due to throwing a harmless piece of styrofoam which traveled less than a foot across the table. The point of this anecdote is to illustrate the negative effect zero tolerance is having on students: while attempting to get an education we are being deprived of it for trivial reasons. Zero tolerance instills in us a fear of being suspended or expelled, which leads to us growing even greater disdain for school.

We are on high alert all the time – it’s not like we’re on a submarine in wartime – we’re kids going to school. It feels like the school is against us, that we’re in an adversarial relationship, which is the opposite of what school should be. How can we be inspired in this environment? How can we give our best? How can we believe that schools and staff wish great things for us? It is my belief that we learn better when we make mistakes.

Education is an opportunity to learn new things and to better one’s self as an individual. Education is an opportunity to advance in life and to broaden one’s horizons. School is supposed to be an environment where this opportunity is cultivated to its fullest potential. School is supposed to be an institution where the opportunity of education is pushed beyond its limits to constantly set new ones. So why is it that schools are attempting to deprive children, well deserving children of an education? The zero tolerance policies must be stopped for the sake of our children – our future. If not, disastrous results await us,. It will be far too late to repair the underlying problem.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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Mykal Washington is a sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus and aspires to a career in writing. He is interning this semester at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.