Despite claims that schools continue to be some of the safest places for children, recent school shootings have contributed to the perception that few places are safe anymore. No rural community, suburb, day care, elementary, high school or college is immune to potential impact of violence. Even if a school or district has well-developed safety plans, security personnel, metal detectors, and hotlines, children in those schools are regularly exposed to violence. Given the attention paid to the tragedies in places like Jonesboro and Columbine on local and national television news, in newspaper headlines, and in conversations of parents and school staff, the very fabric of what it means to a young child to “go to school” is disturbed.
Violence at school can have a significant impact on young people, affecting emotional, physical, and mental health and their academic achievement. Most importantly, it also affects overall socialization and adaptation. In an effort to reduce the incidents of violence in public schools, several state legislatures and, subsequently, Congress passed laws implementing school disciplinary sanctions that became known as Zero-Tolerance Policies.
Every day since Zero-Tolerance Policies were implemented throughout the United States, children have been deprived of the education system. These policies require that children in kindergarten through 12th grade receive harsh punishments. This doesn’t surprise me that even at the college level this might be happening. Often for minor incidents that pose no threat to safety, students and their families regularly receive severe hardship. A strong body of compelling research indicates that these “get-tough” disciplinary measures most often fail to meet sound educational principles, and in cases their application defies common sense if we all agree on what common sense means.
More alarming than punishment meted out in schools is the tracking of children into the juvenile justice system for minor misconduct in school, which could also be misinterpreted. What is minor misconduct? Often, minorities, such as African-American and Latinos, are the students that bear the consequences of these policies. Also, children with disabilities or those who are a part of the special education program are categorized in this group. Policymakers, educators, and parents should be very concerned with the long-term implications of denying educational opportunities to millions of children, especially when effectiveness of these policies in ensuring school safety is highly suspect.
School safety is a critically important issue. Recent tragedies have heightened the public’s fear, which has led to legitimate calls for stronger preventive measures. We must ensure that schools remain one of the safest places for children and students of all ages, including college. Yet, the evidence gathered makes it clear that efforts to address drugs, guns, and other dangerous school situations have spun totally out of control, sweeping up millions of schoolchildren who pose no threat to safety into a net of exclusion from educational opportunities and into criminal prosecution.