You know you’re having a bad day when CNN arrives at school. But it isn’t just an act of school violence that may result in media scrutiny. It may be a student disciplinary suspension resulting from a district’s position of "zero tolerance." Bad day? Indeed.
Do these events sound familiar?
All occurred under the philosophy of zero tolerance without consideration of mitigating factors. So why has zero tolerance suddenly become a hot button issue? When did the term begin to impact the educational system? Where did it al begin?
During the Reagan presidential administration of the 1980’s, the term zero tolerance became a slogan and part of the national campaign in the war on drug trafficking and substance abuse. The term was meant to imply that we, as a national public, would not tolerate the sale, use, or possession of illegal drugs and those participating in these activities would face a judicial system offering little latitude in terms of prosecution and/or sentencing. In fact, public sentiment and the courts espoused the idea that when drug couriers were apprehended, they would be given the maximum sentence allowed under the law.
Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 requiring any state receiving federal funds to suspend or expel, for at least one calendar year, any student who brought a firearm to school. Though the law allowed a district’s chief administrative officer to modify the discipline on a case by case basis, the perception among educators was that a definitive line had been drawn to address difficult issue of school violence.
Over the last several years this same term - zero tolerance - has now become part of the vernacular with educators and the public related to a variety of behavioral offenses. It is most commonly associated within a student code of conduct addressing issues such as weapons, sexual harassment, drug possession or distribution, etc. Within the proper context, it appropriately communicates a strong message to school communities about what will and will not be allowed on a school campus.
Perhaps the answer lies in how the term has been used. Zero tolerance for violent behavior and criminal acts in schools has always been the standard. No school or educational institution has ever recognized these types of behaviors as acceptable, and framed in this manner, zero tolerance makes perfect sense. However, zero tolerance has now become attached to the discipline.
We would suggest zero tolerance not be eliminated, rather school districts rethink how the term is applied and communicated to the public. Suggestions on how to do so include:
It is easy to adopt terminology that sounds good only to determine later that a clear understanding of intent was not communicated or the application of the strategy was misguided. While zero tolerance has a place in the school vernacular, it needs to be applied judiciously. With a thoughtful explanation to staff, students and parents, help them understand the original intent of the term, and use it only when it makes sense to do so.
Hardly a day passes without a report surfacing somewhere indicating a school employee has been accused, arrested or adjudicated for engaging in sexual misconduct with a student. For the average person, the occasional national splash of an incident may not convey the real extent of the problem, but for school principals, careful attention should be paid to these sensitive and emotionally charged incidents.
According to a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education by Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University and Interactive Inc., an estimated 4.5 million students are subjected to some degree of sexual contact by a school employee between kindergarten and twelfth grade.
So what can principals do to help prevent and detect sexual misconduct by school staff?
Professional development on this topic should include the following:
NOTE: It is recommended principals ask staff to provide a signature indicating these polices have been reviewed and understood.
Establish a school climate that protects innocent staff from being accused and sets parameters and boundaries for student/staff interaction.
While dialogue between principal and staff on this subject may be difficult to initiate, it is a conversation that must occur. Unfortunately, these types of situations happen in our profession and occasionally principals find themselves involved in a personnel investigation related to sexual misconduct. Being proactive and honest with staff regarding expectations, policies and procedures on this topic is a must in the 21st Century.
While pre-service teachers receive instruction associated with classroom management, most will receive limited, if any, information related to issues of school violence. Unfortunately, many experienced teachers also lack knowledge and training on this important topic. Though most schools are secure and orderly, even the best of educational environments may experience events that turn violent; it is then that staff will be expected to respond in a reasonable, professional and prudent manner.
The training received by teachers on school safety usually occurs just before the beginning of the school year and may be limited to a few minutes out of a lengthy faculty meeting agenda. When it comes right down to it, what other topic is of greater importance for a school that student and staff safety?
Who should be trained?
What should the training include?
When is training most critical?
The basis for any successful student management program on district provided transportation should begin with the premise that the school bus is merely an extension of the classroom. Of all the responsibilities under the daily "umbrella" of school administrators, providing transportation for students to and from school, as well as to extracurricular activities, can be frustrating when students or parents fail to recognize that riding the bus is a privilege rather than a "right".
Dedicated and often under appreciated bus drivers are expected to focus 100% of their attention on safely delivering students to their destinations, and we ask this while only providing a large mirror to assist them in terms of supervising students and maintaining order. It’s a formidable expectation, but fortunately for everyone drivers continue to do their jobs well and accidents rarely occur.
What Can Principals Do to Help?
We suggest that many of the strategies used within the classroom should also be utilized on the school bus. Implementing the following suggestions should help make the entire school day safer - including the ride on the bus.
Communication - There should be a recurring dialogue between bus drivers and certificated personnel. If a problem is evident during the school day between two or more students, staff should check to see if the students ride the same school bus. If so, the driver should be notified and suggestions for the ride home should be made. Perhaps the students need to have different assigned seats. Perhaps one should sit up front with the driver, with the other riding in the back of the bus. Either way, the most important thing is for the communication between driver and staff to occur. And drivers should be reminded that in order for this to be most effective, communication should work both ways.
Staff Development - Teaching staff is usually provided periodic staff development on managing aggressive and/or violent behavior, and bus drivers should receive the same. In fact, when practical, it is a good idea to train both groups together so managing behavior in the classroom and on the bus becomes a collaborative effort, since each affects and benefits the other. Support staff is part of the educational team and should be treated accordingly. – There should be a recurring dialogue between bus drivers and certificated personnel. If a problem is evident during the school day between two or more students, staff should check to see if the students ride the same school bus. If so, the driver should be notified and suggestions for the ride home should be made. Perhaps the students need to have different assigned seats. Perhaps one should sit up front with the driver and one in the back. Either way, the most important thing is for the communication between driver and staff to occur. And drivers should be reminded that in order for this to be most effective communication should work both ways. If the bus driver is aware of a problem on the morning ride to school, he should make contact with the administrator or counselor at the start of the school day.
Post Rules - Bus rules should be posted in the classroom as well as on the bus. Behavioral expectations for the classroom should be similar and students should understand this through posted visual cues. Additionally, bus rules should appear in the student handbook and include language making it applicable to both the school day and other times a student might be on district transportation such as field trips, extra-curricular activities or other events.
Assign Seating - Assigned seating should be implemented on the bus from the beginning of the school year. Since the bus driver may not initially be familiar with many of the students on the route, teachers and other school officials should be ready and willing to assist by providing drivers with helpful background information. Emphasize to parents and students that this is a safety initiative that is beneficial to all.
Use Character Education - For most schools, character education programs and themes are a mainstay for shaping student behavior. School staff should work with district transportation officials to develop appropriate venues to continue these educational efforts on the bus. Creativity will be required since the "classroom" is a moving vehicle, but drivers and teachers can collaborate on promotions and themes that are appropriate for both.
Use Behavioral Contracts - - If students have had previous disciplinary problems while riding district transportation, the use of contracts or agreements may be beneficial. A conference should occur that includes the driver, an administrator, the student, and parent. All should understand the terms of the agreement, and both student and parent should be required to sign as a condition of continued district provided transportation.
Remove students - - While administrators sometimes hesitate to inconvenience parents, it is critically important for students to understand administrative expectations, as well as the consequences for inappropriate behavior.
Students understand the "real rules" on the bus are the ones that get enforced. Teach the guidelines to staff, students and parents and maintain high expectations. Using administrative authority when necessary can appropriately support bus drivers in their duties and responsibilities, as well as provide for a safer environment for all.
Everyone in the school business has homework and school principals are no exception; however, some of us are not getting our homework done in a timely manner. And for school administrators who procrastinate and fail to complete all assignments, it may result in more than just a "bad grade".
A study by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute indicates that many schools are unprepared related to disasters, particularly those that would affect large numbers of students and community members. This study surveyed 3,670 school superintendents throughout the United States and found the following:
It would be a rare school that does not have a crisis plan that covers a myriad of crisis circumstances; but it appears some districts are still "behind the curve" when it comes to preparing for a disaster event that involves more than just the immediate student and staff population.
We suspect the primary reason schools have not adequately planned is a lack of knowledge related to steps in the process. As any student knows, the hardest part of completing one’s homework is mustering the willpower to get started. So we would suggest using the following guidelines to school principals and superintendents.
As you read through any of our articles on school safety you should always ask, "Will this play in Peoria?" In other words, are the suggestions practical for your particular school and community? While not all may seem to resonate immediately, it is a safe bet that some of the suggestions should be explored and are worthy of your follow-through.
Plan ahead, be prepared, do your homework, and be ready for school. It is always better to be safe than sorry.