Outrageous School Policies: What Parents Can Do
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There was a lesson to be learned recently in the case of Zachary Christie, a 6-year-old first-grader in Delaware who earlier this month brought a camping utensil along with his lunch. The tool included a folding fork and knife—the reason Zachary took it out during lunch time at Downes Elementary School in Newark last month.
Unfortunately for Zachary, that favorite camping utensil also included a folded knife. That automatically made it a "dangerous instrument" under his school district's rule, which in this case had zero tolerance for any dangerous instruments brought into school.
So Zachary was sentenced to 45 days in the district's alternative school, a punishment that drew outrage from parents and lawmakers alike. A few days later, the school board allowed Zachary to return to school and amended the policy to include only a 3- to 5-day suspension for kids caught with dangerous instruments, if they are in kindergarten or first grade.
The incident raises questions about what parents should do if they encounter a school rule that they think is unfair and should be changed. While some observers lashed out against so-called zero tolerance policies—rules that require a certain punishment often without allowing the school principal or administrators any discretion—Diane Cargile, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, had a different view.
Cargile pointed out that many schools have zero tolerance rules covering a variety of different behaviors. At her school in Terre Haute, Ind., for example, an incident like the one with Zachary would go to a committee with the discretion to determine the intent of the child.
The main point that Cargile made is that parents should, and can be, vital partners with schools in setting up important rules and policies. Principals and administrators want input from parents when rules are being discussed. It's important for parents to know the policies and rules at school and become active and involved. Don't wait until there's a problem to show up at school, Cargile said. "We want parent involvement and that's how schools are made," Cargile said. "And then when you are surprised (about a rule), you know what to do to rectify the situation. You aren't a stranger."
But Kathy Cowan, director of marketing and communications for the National Association of School Psychologists and a parent of four, said the plain truth is that parents often don't know the rules and policies at their school. "Parents these days are so busy and may be working two jobs," she said. "I don't think it's because they don't care, it's because they are busy."
Both Cowan and Cargile agreed, however, that parents probably have more power to affect rules and policies at their children's schools than they realize.
Here's how parents can flex their muscle at schools around the country, according to the pair:
- Know the rules at school. It takes some work, Cowan said, but that handbook that goes home at the beginning of the school year is worth reading and understanding.
- Make sure your child knows the rules. Once you've gone through the handbook, it's time to sit down with your child and emphasize the rules you think are most important for him or her to keep in mind.
- If a rule seems unfair, contact your school. Whether the issue comes up after reading the school rules or after an incident like the one with Zachary and his camping tool, don't hesitate to make your opinion known. "It can be difficult for some parents, may be busy or feel intimidated," Cowan said. "But a really good school administration is open to conversations with parents."
- The next step is the school's parent teacher organization. The PTA should have a good working relationship with school officials. "One of the responsibilities of the PTA," Cowan said," is to fully understand what the laws are and the consequences."
- Be prepared to go to your School Board. While changing school rules isn't impossible, it usually takes a little pushing, Cowan said. Many of the rules started with the School Board, and parents are one of the main constituencies of school boards.
Cowan added that, in the opinion of the school psychologists association, zero-tolerance policies that don't provide school officials with any discretion aren't good for schools. Rules that keep kids safe are important, but rules should have clear standards for behaviors and reasonable consequences when the rules are not followed, Cowan said.
For example, a sexual harassment policy that punishes an innocent first-grader being silly on the playground in the exact same way that an 18-year is punished for more serious behavior is absolutely wrong.
"If the parent community doesn't understand the consequences of zero tolerance and stand up to it, then zero tolerance will live forever," Cowan predicted. "At its best, zero tolerance is a tool schools use to shield themselves from liability."
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