Is Zero Tolerance Preventing Us From Teaching Tolerance?

If you have watched the news or scrolled your Facebook feed, then you have undoubtedly heard many opinions over the last several days about racism, constitutional freedom, and patriotism. Many are debating whether our right to protest is restricted to only those acts that do not make us uncomfortable, or that we do not deem disrespectful. The president called for firing those who, like it or not, are exercising their freedom. This recurring theme that we should simply get rid of anyone who threatens or differs from our beliefs, or promotes discussion of topics about which we might be uncomfortable addressing, is a disturbing one, and I worry that this approach is occurring in our schools, as well. By avoiding the discussion altogether, we risk a future of never teaching tolerance to the youth who will inherit this country.

A friend recently shared with me a story about a young man who has found himself in the cross-hairs of the racism controversy born long before him. A senior in high school, a varsity football player, and perhaps an aspiring filmmaker or photographer, this 17 year-old boy made an unfortunate error in judgment when he participated in a group chat involving a photograph that made reference to the KKK in what was immaturely considered clever. As you might suspect, school administrators were made aware of the photo and took swift action when, understandably, complaints were made.

While, as adults, we may find it hard to believe, his ignorance to the significance his thoughtless reference would hold should not be all that surprising. The totality of his knowledge of the Civil Rights movement and the role of the KKK likely spans, at best, 45 minutes of a U.S. History class. Up until recently, maybe, it was not the world in which he has lived. He has grown up with friends and classmates of all races and religions, knows no differently, and would never think to question it. He also comes from a generation of youth whose attention span and memory are trained to last only as long as whatever is #trending.

Further, it is scientifically proven that a child’s brain does not fully develop until in his/her 20s. The area of the brain still very much developing at this time is the prefrontal cortex - the part responsible for our executive functioning and the ability to understand the consequences of our actions. Childhood is a time for experiment, growth, and failure. These are precious few years afforded to us to make the mistakes necessary to grow while in the protection of parents and teachers, and without far-reaching consequences, so that we may learn to become functioning adults. To put the expectation of adult behavior on someone not yet fully capable is unreasonable. It is a skill that occurs gradually, with many trials and errors, and childhood is intended to be a time to make and correct mistakes before the less forgiving years of adulthood.

The school district from which this student comes is a diverse one, and among his best friends and teammates are African Americans, Asians, and Muslims. Following the incident, the student visited these friends, classmates, teammates, and their families to personally apologize for the pain he caused. As a result, some of these families actually rescinded their complaints. The student and his family returned to the school where he again apologized to administrators, and offered to speak before his classmates about the dangers and permanence of social media, and the importance of social awareness so that others might learn from his mistake. He was accountable and sought to use the incident as a platform for discussing the importance of tolerance. The school would not have it.

Despite having no prior disciplinary record, and the school’s awareness that there was no malicious intent or threat behind the student’s actions, the decision had been made - they were expelling him. The remainder of his senior year is to be spent in a school for troubled youth and special needs students. He is neither. This child now finds himself defined by this single painful moment in an otherwise flawless young life, and even though he is willing and actively seeking redemption, it is being denied him.

I recognize the gravity of his actions and do not dispute that consequences are appropriate. I question very much the appropriateness of this consequence, however. It is extreme, and the damage to the student is exceedingly disproportionate to that he may have caused. Furthermore, I am disappointed that a body entrusted with educating our youth has instead chosen to turn its back on a child, and on the opportunity to truly fulfill its purpose - to educate on such an important, relevant, and timely topic when it is perhaps needed now more than ever.

I cannot help but wonder what more exactly the school district would like for him to learn from this? Who benefits from the removal of those who invite and challenge us to learn from our mistakes? His classmates surely do not benefit as they are deprived of the value of his lesson. I suspect actually facing one’s African American classmates and explaining why he found it appropriate to make light of such a hateful time in history, and having to hear directly from those classmates/friends how and why it is so hurtful to them personally would have far more impact.

Instead, the school district is seeking to remove him so that they are spared having to actually deal with what is clearly a systemic problem currently occurring in our society and in schools right now - the desensitization of issues like racism and Anti-Semitism. I think it is safe to say that the majority of kids who are engaging in careless acts such as this have no appreciation of the significance of what they are doing and the impact it has, and given recent discussions of eliminating teaching these types of things, perhaps we risk raising a society of people who never do. How frightening is that?

Over the last several years, many school districts across the country, including my own, have completely overhauled the curriculum to the Common Core standards with the objective of developing critical thinkers capable of applying learned skills in the real world. Are we seeking only to develop these skills where academics are concerned? As parents and educators, it falls on us to teach the difficult lessons in life. If we expel students who make mistakes where sensitive topics are concerned, instead of confronting these issues head-on, and, perhaps more importantly, allowing his/her fellow students to confront these issues and each other, then how can we expect our children, the future leaders of this country, to be able to have productive dialogues so we can avoid situations like the ones we currently face?

Life is uncomfortable, and becoming increasingly so in light of current events. Yet, we now live in a culture that seeks so desperately to shield our children from any discomfort whatsoever, that every child receives a trophy to spare them from experiencing disappointment and loss. Kids today also have been conditioned to cloak themselves behind the anonymity of the internet and social media, and escape the reality of facing conflict head-on. They now live in a world where its leader engages daily in rhetoric reduced to 140 characters, and when met with disagreement, the solution proposed is to remove and silence those who seek to facilitate the difficult conversations. In expelling a child who admits he has done wrong and seeks to share the value in his lesson, is this not precisely what we are doing? This is a risky strategy that will surely backfire, if not on the legal grounds of First Amendment rights, then surely on moral ones.

It is an unfortunate reality in the real world that we will encounter, at some point in our lives, bias surrounding race, gender, religion, or sexuality. By simply stating there is zero tolerance for it, or shielding our children from experiencing it first-hand, or from understanding how or why it exists in the first place, we risk repeating painful lessons, which is perhaps where we now find ourselves today. It is time we come out from behind the cover of our feeds and have the difficult conversations, face-to-face, respectfully, and our youth need to be a part of this if we hold any hope of effecting any real change in the world.

I simply cannot reconcile how a school filled with educators that have devoted themselves to teaching and shaping children no longer wish to embrace this child. And let us remember he is still, indeed, a CHILD, capable of resilience and primed for learning. This unfortunate incident provides his community a unique opportunity to teach about the harm racism has inflicted on so many, and an opportunity to provide a far-reaching benefit, not a punitive and short-sighted one. I realize they seek to make an example of him, but they are choosing the wrong example. Perhaps it is time to stop ignoring the elephant of intolerance in the room and finally work towards teaching these kids something truly valuable that appears to be lost on many of us “adults” - the power of tolerance and forgiveness.

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