Saturday, September 24, 2011

What is Zero Tolerance? Does Your School or Community REALLY Have a Zero Tolerance Policy?

"Real zero tolerance is no concealment or silence."  This is a sentence that high school student Ellsworth Evarts IV (who has  Asperger's Syndrome) put on the back of a T-shirt. The front said "Stop bullying now. Stand up, Speak out!" Below the period of the exclamation point are red dots dripping down the T-shirt.  Ells, the T-shirt's designer and a victim of bullying in school said "The bleeding doesn't stop, even after the bullying ends."  As I read this part of the article about bullying and Asperger's, ("Aspberger's Leaves Kids Vulnerable To Bullying"  by Vinti Singh, published in the Greenwich Times September 17, 2011 issue) my heart broke for Ells and the other children profiled in the story.

Obviously these children are only the tip of the iceberg--children with disabilities are often harassed. It doesn't necessarily end with high school graduation.  They are harassed not only by 'regular ed' students but by 'more powerful' special education students. Because some students lack the verbal skills to respond the problem often escalates.

Our family found out first hand what a zero tolerance policy really meant in our school district when one of our daughters was sexually assaulted.  It meant in our district the school district would suspend a boy for a few days, but they would NOT call the police even though a crime had been committed on school property.  Selling or carrying drugs--zero tolerance, fighting, zero tolerance, but sexual assault, not such a big deal.  Something is wrong with this picture. Obviously we haven't 'come a long way baby,' especially if you happen to be disabled and female.

As we sat in the Principal's office he had the nerve to say 'Boys will be boys.'  Right to our face. I'm rarely at a loss for words.  In fact, anyone who knows me would tell you I am never at a loss for words. But there's a first time for everything and that was mine. I sat there staring at the the photos on the Principal's desk showing his son playing baseball and wondered if he'd had a daughter would his reaction have been different? Was his reaction a result of his own parenting fears? Or was he just indifferent? Lacking empathy? His reaction puzzles me to this day.

At first I thought it was just a problem with the principal.  It wasn't.  We went all the way up the chain of command in the school district--they refused to call the police and involve the school, my daughter, my husband and I did. Fortunately the police department and the District Attorney DID have a zero tolerance policy.

The young man was convicted in court. It was only later we found out his family was well known to the police in the area as 'problems'.  Oddly enough one of the Principal's reasons for not reacting differently was something along the lines of what an "exemplary student this boy was, what a good boy, it must have just been a misunderstanding." No way! Unfortunately, that fall day their family issues and problems spilled out and over into my family.  And his problems became part of ours. 

Our daughter made the hard decision to go to the police and to court.  It was not easy for her.  Either before or after. But she said, 'If I don't do something, who will?' My eyes teared up with pride and fear for her.  But to her credit she wanted to be sure he got counseling so it didn't happen again to someone else. That day she made me proud to be her mother.

Was this decision easier because she saw things in 'black and white, without gray areas?' I don't know.  I know I worried she would regret it, but all I could do was support her decision.  One of the hardest things to do when you have a child with disabilities is let them learn by experience instead of telling them what to do.  This tested my limits.  I wanted to hold her, protect her, keep her at home and home school her--but I didn't.  I supported her and yes, gave her those hugs, but I had to let her choose which path to take.  Was I right? Wrong? She did what she thought was right for her.  I couldn't take that power away from her. She went back to school, faced her schoolmates, and dealt with the fallout.

It was at that point in her life that my daughter became one of my heroes.  Young, in middle school, assaulted and yet still willing to put herself out there.  And not for vengeance.  But to be sure no one else got hurt and so that the perpetrator would get counseling. I don't know if I would have been as brave (or forgiving) if it had happened to me at her age. 

I also have to give credit to her friends who she told about the incident first--who encouraged her to tell us and the school.  They were REAL friends.  If you guys are reading this, you know who you are, thank you.  (Yeah, I know I thanked you before, but...once is never enough for something like this).

To be fair, one guidance counselor at the school was helpful to her and the Head of Special Education helped us navigate the Administration. But still no one considered it a police matter.  How sad that those in charge lacked the conviction to do what was right.  Sad they didn't REALLY have a zero tolerance policy against someone breaking the law on school property. And sad that once again the victim was victimized by those in charge. Victimized by the very people you trust your child to each day when they go to school.  Scary that you still have to send that child back to school and trust them.

So the next time you're at a PTA/PTO meeting and there is a discussion about zero tolerance, find out just who is REALLY protected by zero tolerance. You may be surprised to find that zero is only zero when it's easy and convenient for the school district.  And this isn't just a Special Education issue, it effects all students in the school.  Special education students are just often less able to defend themselves.  Kudos to those mentioned in The Greenwich Times article and to the author who presented the issue.

Read the full article in The Greenwich Times at:

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