Monday, February 22, 2010

Schools Are Not Smart

On February 1, Alexa Gonzalez, a seventh grader at the Junior High School in Forest Hills, New York, was handcuffed and arrested after she wrote on her desk. WROTE ON HER DESK. And she didn’t write anything violent, threatening, or even profane. She wrote, “I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here 2/1/10 :-)” in green marker. Her severe punishment was due to the school’s “No Tolerance” policy. These policies have been adopted by schools around the country and are once again a topic of debate after Alexa’s arrest. In response to criticism of the policy, Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Alexa’s school system, told CNN, “Our mission is to make sure that public schools are a safe and supportive environment for all students.”

Um, WHAT?! Please don’t tell me that you think handcuffing a child who wrote on a desk is making anyone’s environment safe. I assure you that young Alexa feels less safe and supported at school now than she did last year. And how are her schoolmates any safer now? Do you really think that this menacing CHILD WITH A MARKER threatened them? Really? I find it hard even to articulate my anger around this issue. But of course I am going to try.

I used to be a middle school English teacher. I worked in many different inner city schools and among them was a school in Dorchester, the most violent part of Boston. The year that I worked and lived there, Dorchester had endured over 80 unsolved murders. I am not making that up. But the things I saw at school scared me more than the streets – and I am not referring to the students’ behavior. I once watched a teacher and a social worker drag, beat, and tackle an eighth grade boy because they had asked him not to leave school and he tried to anyway. He tried to walk away from them, and they threw him into a wall. Oh, and our principal was fine with it. I am not making that up either. I had nightmares for weeks about what I saw, and I still feel guilty that I didn’t make a bigger stink about it. I bring this up only to say that I have for many years known that the adults are making schools unsafe for kids in ways that people often don’t consider and probably wouldn’t believe.

Let’s think about Alexa and her “crime.” She is a 12 year-old girl who wrote on a desk. How many 12 year-old girls write on desks? Or rather, how many 12 year-old girls DON’T write on desks? I mean, good grief – I have caught myself doodling on desks. And I was a teacher! Imagine what school is like now for Alexa, who has to worry that her other normal adolescent behaviors might lead to being handcuffed and dragged to the local precinct. What must that be like for her on a day-to-day basis? It sounds to me like school has become a rather fearful place for Alexa and her classmates.

What strikes me most about this story is Alexa’s own statement. Recalling what it was like to be arrested in front of her classmates, she said, “I didn’t want them to see me being handcuffed, thinking I’m a bad person.” First of all, the idea of unnecessarily subjecting a 12 year-old girl to humiliation in front of her friends is among the more sinister acts I can imagine. How many of you reading this were once 12 year-old girls? If you were, you know what I mean. And if you weren’t, you’ll just have to trust us – it’s a nightmare. That Alexa was so embarrassed in front of her peers for such a minor rule infraction is unthinkable. Furthermore, it is among the most important tenets of adolescent psychology that an adult should never assign a negative identity to a teenager. Adolescents are by definition in the critical developmental stage of establishing an identity. And we know that in order to develop a stable identity, adolescents rely on not only how they see themselves but also on how others see them. So treating a teen like a criminal is only more likely to make that teen act like a criminal. This is a fact. (If you want to hear it from someone other than me, google “Erik Erikson Identity vs. Role Confusion” and read all about it.) I am not insinuating that Alexa is now doomed to life as a criminal. But whoever is coming up with these punitive policies knows nothing about adolescent development, and that is plain terrifying.

In addition to the fact that schools like Alexa’s are creating a hostile, unsupportive environment for their students, these schools are also creating a toxic relationship between kids and cops. Back in the day (a day I doubt anyone reading this can remember), police officers were seen as helpful, friendly public servants – at least to those who were not breaking the law. Over the past few decades, this perception has changed, and police officers are often viewed as the enemy. The reasons for this are too many and complicated for me to address, but I wonder how students at Alexa’s school see police officers. And ask yourself if you think this type of assignment is a good use of our police force. I know that Dorchester, Massachusetts could use a few more cops solving murders – you know, if New York wants to lend them a few after they finish traumatizing little girls.

I could go on and on about why this story frightens and outrages me and why it should frighten and outrage you. But I imagine you’ve read enough for now. And because I try to keep these columns light (well, sort of, anyway), I’d like to propose a solution – not to the problem of No Tolerance policies in schools but rather to the problem of the urge to doodle. See, if Alexa had an iPhone or iTouch with Swakker Doodle on it, she could have written where I have instead of on her desk. Just saying.

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