Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Zero Tolerance and the Upside-Down Rules of Violence in Schools

Much has been made of the craziness of "zero tolerance" policies recently in light of a story about a student who bit a pop-tart into the shape of a gun. Gun-rights advocates have been having a field day with this, which may compete for Dumbest Decision By a School District this year.

But there's a deeper reality behind the way schools have set up rules about violence, bullying, and the use or threat of force in schools. "Zero tolerance" is easy to make fun of, with good reason: it is very likely counterproductive. But there is a deeper, underlying set of "rules of engagement" shared by many schools, whether written or not. And these rules are teaching some very bizarre lessons.

Consider this story, posted by a substitute teacher who happens to be a martial arts instructor (and therefore, well versed in the controlled use of force) to a group of martial artists:
Junior High Student KICKED AT ME (Substitute teacher)
Let's just say, everyone is OK, except potentially the future of my clearance to work with children.
This kid was supposed to be working on math, in his seat. Instead, he was closing the period with three VERY CLOSE spin kicks to a seated student's face. 
Helping another student, I told him to stop and rose, closed my distance to create space between them (no idea of how serious either was). Once there, he lifted his hand and said "Do you want to spar?" {Yes, insert groans now} 
Declining, I had my left hand out to "ward off" and as I turned toward him, the weasel did another spin kick AT ME. I was out of range, but as we all know, even a badly done kick still can hurt like %$#@! No contact, but avoided the kick rather than BLOCK. 
I extended my right hand to press/direct him away from the other seated students (for the safety of all) and maneuvered behind him to an Aikido-like position. Right hand hovering near elbow, left hand on his left shoulder, middle finger behind clavicle- I was in an "I AM HERE" grounding/control position and in a direct and slightly elevated voice said "You need to STOP", "You need to SIT","Do you UNDERSTAND?" 
Of course, I had cut my fingernails at the beginning of the day, to accommodate the later guitar class. The "poor innocent baby" felt the scratch of my fingernail and reported "my attack" to the principal. As there was no high risk attack or equal force defense, I had planned upon reporting the incident myself during the third period prep, but instead was called in, provided my statement and dismissed for the day and removed from the sub list for that district. Later that morning, as I was typing my own statement, a sheriff's deputy came to interview me. I demonstrated the position upon him, and although underwhelmed himself, he could not verbally tell me how ridiculous this was, because he had not interviewed all the parties and witnesses. 
This fellow tried to do his best under very trying circumstances - a kid who would not behave in class or respect his authority, and who was endangering (not to mention distracting) others in the class. For those non-martial artists (that's most of you) among my readership, this fellow's detailed description of the physical steps he took is imminently reasonable, and he showed remarkable restraint. For which he was punished by the school district.

Here's the rub: what he did was technically correct and ethically proper, but totally wrong under the rules of engagement of the school. What he should have done is something almost no one would think of: take the kick.

Why allow yourself to get hit? Because the underlying rules of engagement in schools are simple: whoever gets caught hitting (kicking/etc.) loses. Whoever is the victim of the strike wins. This is particularly true if the interaction is teacher/student; a teacher who lays a hand on a student is asking for trouble.

School administrators apparently think that these rules will deter fights, bullying, etc. Instead, they have created a loophole that bullies and jerks (like the kid mentioned in this story) exploit ruthlessly. There are numerous stories of kids being suspended for defending themselves, when everyone around (including the teachers) knows who really initiated the fight. There are other stories of fights started by bullies in which both bully and victim are punished equally.

Essentially, what schools are saying is: you are not allowed to defend yourself. If someone wants to hit you, let them - let us (the authorities) handle it from there. This gives bullies, masters of going right up to the line and not getting caught, all kinds of opportunities to induce fear and get other kids in trouble.

This is an upside-down, looking glass world that teaches bullies to be sneaky and everyone else to be victims. It's time to get chuck these rules of engagement and develop a more realistic and reasonable approach to dealing with bullies and fighting in schools.

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