Recently I heard about a 6-year-old girl in first grade who was suspended from school for doing the following:
During class, little Mary, who was frustrated, got up from her chair, walked to the front of the classroom and made the following remark to her fellow classmates and teacher: "You are all a bunch of assholes!" Mary then promptly returned to her seat.
In exasperation, Mary’s teacher took her down to the principal’s office for reprimand and consequences. The principal spoke to Mary about her action and then contacted the child’s parents to promptly pick her up as she was suspended from school for the rest of the week.
Several years ago another child, in another school, 5 year-old Rachel hit a boy who was constantly picking on her. She had complained to the teacher and schoolyard mom but no one would do anything about this little boy. So in defense Rachel hit the boy back. Rachel got suspended from school.
Lastly, months ago another child, in another school, 8 year-old John stole some food from a schoolmate because he was hungry. John was suspended from school for stealing.
Are you in shock yet? These stories are just the tip of the iceberg of how our school system is falling apart by the busload. The obvious effects of The Columbine Tragedy and other school massacres across the country has spurred the rewriting of conduct code books in schools from New York to Los Angeles. Many school have implemented security checkpoints with x-ray machines, random backpack checks, and drug testing. Police officers are now employed fulltime in schools, while school counselors are being cut across the board, due to budget cuts. We now have zero-tolerance in the school. We went from complete laxity to conduct abuse. We live in a world of avoidance, denial, ignorance, and only when we can’t ignore what is going on around any further do we intervene. Only that intervention tends to be harsher than the crime itself.
I do not know the cause of Mary’s outburst. However it seems to me that the cause didn’t have much meaning to the teacher and principal as the child was suspended from school. In the second case, Rachel was doing what any other person would do in her position: She defended herself against a school bully that no one chose to deal with. She didn’t shoot him; stab him, or break any bones. She merely shoved him back with an open hand and finally said, "enough!" Lastly, I do not have all of the information regarding John’s case but again, was the punishment befitting to the crime?
In each case cited above we are dealing with small children aged 5-8. This phase of development deals with children just learning about consequences of behavior and cause and effect. Children in this age group are exploring the possibilities of independence, separation from their mother, and learning to make decisions on a daily basis. Children experiment during this time and are grasping the concepts of right and wrong. They learn from modeling behaviors from their families, friends, and teachers. When they make a mistake they expect us to gently guide them and help them process the learning experience and come out with a positive and win-win situation. Lastly, children at this age have difficulty articulating their thoughts and feelings; some still use non-verbal ways of expressing strong emotions.
So what are we teaching them when the punishment is harsher than the crime? Are we teaching them to trust? To feel comfortable with people in authority? Are we providing an opportunity for children to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes in a loving environment? Are we providing emotional outlets for children to express themselves?
The laws have changed to protect our children, but are they protecting our children or creating more problems? Do we want this generation of children growing up suppressed and unable to express themselves in healthy ways? Do we want our children to feel unloved and afraid of making mistakes? We all make mistakes and those mistakes should be viewed as learning opportunities not failures. Are we teaching our children that they are failures? What can we do to change this?
What do you think? Have you had a similar situation in your local community schools? What was the outcome? How do you think the parents should have responded in each case above? Do you believe the children deserved to be suspended?
Share those stories here, In the News.
Linda Rener, is the Director of Health Career Programs at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colorado and the author of Memories of my sister: Dealing with sudden death.