School shootings are a concern for all parents. Reading of mass murders in high schools around the country, we draw our children close and wonder how we can ever protect them from evil that invades even our most protected institutions. How could this happen? we wonder. Why couldn't the school prevent this? Why didn't they see the signs? Surely, there must be a way to spot violent kids and get them help -- or get them out of there. In that context, Zero Tolerance policies make all kinds of sense. Err on the side of safety. Take every threat seriously. Cleanse our schools from even the slightest trace of menace.
For parents of some children with special needs, though, this issue has two sides. As we watch over our children with emotional and behavioral challenges and pray for their safety, we also wonder, deep down, in that dark place where the bad worries go: Could my kid ever do that? Could he ever be pushed so far and so hard that he would react with that kind of violence? Will the school ever see him or her as a threat to protect the other students from? Will there be help, or will there be persecution, scorn, abandonment? In that context, Zero Tolerance is the worst sort of comfort. Our kids need every bit of tolerance they can get, every bit of understanding. We've learned through experience how badly they react to rigid rules, enforced without feeling. Those are as much a threat to their education as guns and knives and fists.
Latest NewsA November 2011 post from the Special Education Law Blog looks at the numbers on zero tolerance and wonders if it goes to far in punishing minor infractions and targeting students with special needs. For the latest news, go to the Special-Education News folder.
Jeff Weise, the Minnesota teen who shot his classmates last year, was one such challenged child. He had been through numerous tragedies and disruptions, including the suicide of his father, the incapacitation of his mother in a serious car accident, and a move from a city school to the high school on the Indian reservation where he lived his grandfather. He had been hospitalized for depression and medicated for it. His drawings were disturbing, and he frequented neo-Nazi websites. This was not a quiet, average kid who just flipped. What could his school have done to help him?
Suspending him, as a Zero Tolerance policy would support, did not seem to have helped. He was in fact on home study, having been suspended for making threats, when he shot his grandfather, took the man's guns and police car, and went on a rampage. Perhaps isolating troubled students -- and in particular, isolating them in environments where they have unlimited use of the internet and access to guns -- is not the wisest policy.
It's impossible to know if keeping Weise in school would have made a difference, but keeping him out surely did not.