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Where's Common Sense in Disciplining Students?

With the start of the fall semester just a few weeks away, school officials will once again find themselves debating the issue of discipline. Over the past two decades, get-tough policies, often referred to as zero tolerance, have neither made schools safer nor have they helped children learn right from wrong.

I'm not referring to suspending or expelling students for serious offenses, an issue that I've written about before ("Rules for Schools: Dealing with Delinquents," The American, Oct. 26, 2010), and that was recently in the news ("Teachers learning to file assault complaints," Boston Globe, Jul. 22). Instead, I'm talking about overreacting to common behaviors that used to be handled by detention. Consider what transpired at the Lupine Hills Elementary School in the West Contra Costa Unified School District ("A Touch During Recess, and Reaction Is Swift," The New York Times, Jan. 26). It involved first graders who were roughhousing during recess. One boy touched the upper thigh or groin of another boy, and was immediately suspended by the principal for "sexual assault."

On the other hand, I don't blame school officials for being ultra cautious. Today's litigious atmosphere has put them on the defensive. For example, Broward County, Fla. settled 189 playground lawsuits in the five years ending in Jan. 2009 ("Weep for the death of common sense," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 9, 2009). Although the number is admittedly dated, it illustrates the situation faced by districts. Young children need to be protected from obvious dangers. But it's impossible to insulate them from every possible harm without taking the fun out of being a child.

It's time for state legislatures to pass a law granting immunity to teachers and administrators who take reasonable steps to safeguard the welfare of students. The operative word is in italics for good reason. School officials can't foresee every eventuality. That's only common sense.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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