And furthermore ...

Readers respond to "The Failure of Zero Tolerance," "The Paddle's Infinite Sting" and "What Are We Fighting For?"


Salon Staff
September 7, 2001 11:18PM (UTC)

Read "The Failure of Zero Tolerance" by Johanna Wald

I find it very interesting that on the same day I read this insightful article about what I often call "The War on Youth," I noticed that in the article about Ray Bradbury, among the future-come-true events and concepts listed for "Fahrenheit 451" is "a violent youth culture ignored by self-absorbed, prescription-dependent parents."

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No doubt, violent youth subcultures exist today, as they have since the days of Cain and Abel, but in fact, we are pretty safe from violent kids. I enjoy working with young people, and feel much more threatened by the notion of the "self-absorbed parents." An age-old mythology is growing again among parents and the "in loco parentis" set -- educators, legislators and police -- that kids today are wild and need restraining as much as possible.

Thank you for publishing an article that points out, in thoughtful detail, the problems that occur with such a view taking hold in our national culture -- institutionalized racism, alienation of young people, kids dropping out or forced out of the educational system. It is the height of arrogant self-absorption for older adults to deny young adults and children due process, civil liberties or the right to an education, in the name of largely unfounded and poorly processed personal fears. At its worst, "zero tolerance" can mold the very type of youth that we are all afraid of, the kid with nothing left to lose.

-- Vikki Cravens

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Your article on zero tolerance policies at schools was right on target in many ways. However, it fails to mention the best, most effective and possibly cheapest way to prevent violence in schools: We need to know our students. Many schools are beginning to place students in "houses" or teams in an effort to create a smaller community in which the students and teachers can all know one another and work together. As a beginning 7th grade teacher, I can say that looking in my students' eyes each morning, saying "hello" to them by name and taking the trouble to know who they are is invaluable. There is no substitute for knowing someone cares, and in the large schools we have today, it is more important than ever.

-- Carole Landrith

I can't believe you ran -- indeed, featured -- a piece about the "evils" of zero-tolerance policies in American schools.

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Has Johanna Wald actually worked in an American public school? Has she experienced firsthand the helpless feeling of being caught between the educational system's myriad stockholders?

I must guess not.

If she had, she'd have known that education professionals are not professionals in the same sense that she is a professional scholar or Rick Moody is a professional writer, in that they are able to make few (and increasingly fewer) decisions of their own volition.

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Simply, most public schools are too bent on surviving to be guided by philosophies or their own high standards. They are caught in a confusing pool, not even exactly sure whom they're serving anymore. Some teachers plug away to serve kids, while some hope to turn out useful product for industry and society; administrators scramble to please everyone, from in-building teachers to reporters publishing standardized test data (many times clouding the picture by not acknowledging the relative student demographic information) to parents frightened that the school might not have policies in place to prevent a Columbine at their school; school board officials, who seem to love serving themselves and their personal political agendae, have it considerably easier, though at the expense of the above groups.

So are zero-tolerance policies drastic, unnecessary patches over "thorny issues" to ease community fears? Perhaps. But believe me, Ms. Wald, it's not, as you suggest, out of laziness or a lack of ability to deal with subtle, complex problems. It's because schools in 2001 only do what their communities loudly tell them -- many times even when it's educationally unsound. Liability and government-dollars-for-enrollment issues have left them little choice.

So do not attack public schools, Ms. Wald, if you want zero tolerance snuffed where it stands. Indeed, tell the public to relax. As public schools only attempt to do what the public tells them in the fairest, cheapest fashion, your piece is misdirected.

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Somehow, though, I believe 2001 might be the wrong year to tell parents around the country to relax because their hysteria's causing one in every 10,000 innocent Honor Society members to be suspended on zero-tolerance technicalities. As a parent and high school teacher, I'm actually glad to see schools erring on the side of caution right now.

Until you walk over these thorny issues with your own bare feet, Ms. Wald, or have more reasons to make me believe zero-tolerance policies are actually more harmful than good, I wish you'd choose another cause to champion.

-- Eric L .Kalenze

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Maybe the schools will lighten up when they notice their enrollment numbers declining as more and more parents pull their children from the public schools in favor of home schooling.

-- Ron Linker

Having a child in public schools, I honestly believe that this movement is intended to teach children to fear the arbitrary power of authority. As such, it is actually fairly successful, with unpleasant implications for the future of our democratic system of government.

-- Marshall Eubanks

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All the more reason for school vouchers. School is a commodity that we purchase -- either directly by going to private or parish schools or indirectly through tax dollars. If schools can not educate our children, can not teach them to judge right and wrong, can not even apply badly written laws fairly to their students (who as teachers, they should know a little bit), then it is time to give the poor and marginalized students the ability to shop for schools that will teach them to read and write and how to be a better citizen. From all anecdotal accounts, public schools have become warehouses for our children, little prisons marking down the time. This is a ridiculous situation that school reform is being held hostage by teachers unions, political whims at the local, state and federal level, and out and out fraud. We pay for the schools -- we should be getting more than suspensions for a plastic knife.

-- Kevin McCreavy

I don't get it. If one of the main points of your article is that zero tolerance unfairly targets disadvantaged children, why illustrate that point with examples of honors students, merit scholars, cheerleaders and kids who can afford a car to drive to school? It seems that if we're interested in fairness and equality, we would punish those children in a manner equivalent with other children who may not be as talented or wealthy. I agree that zero tolerance policies and punishments are ridiculously harsh, but if the goal is greater fairness, isn't it better to enforce rules fairly among ALL students?

-- Jennifer Jackson

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Ms. Wald glosses over the history of school discipline; it didn't start in 1994.

In the old days, the principal was sheriff, judge and jury. That system worked pretty well. Things started to change with the Tinker vs. Des Moines case in 1969; students started to become aware of their "constitutional rights." Things really started rolling in 1975 with the Goss vs. Lopez decision: Students (and their increasingly litigious parents) realized they could complain that their "due process rights" were being violated, and ACLU lawyers were only too happy to represent them. Because the old way allowed discretion in the distribution of punishment, it would no longer pass muster.

So, school boards, tired of defending against lawsuits, found their way to the zero-tolerance policy. Principals are no longer accused of sticking it to the troublemakers and letting the "good kids" off easy. Students in those schools learn in one of Kafka's nightmares, where some meaningless act might be reason for expulsion.

But their due process rights have never been stronger.

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-- Scot Billman

Read The Paddle's Infinite Sting" by Ted Gup

Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Poor little Ted Gup. He got a spankin' once... and -- gasp -- it ... it ... HURT!

Has Mr. Gup's life been so utterly free of actual strife and pain that he carries a grudge about a whuppin' he got from a crotchety teacher?! He acts like his experience came straight out of a Lorenzo Carcaterra novel. The ultimate irony: It sounds like the punishment was actually one of his life's most enduring lessons, even if it didn't come out the way he or his teacher might have intended.

-- Billy Faires

It's sad to see a man in his 50s reliving the horror of corporal punishment administered in first grade. Sad, not because he was humiliated and shamed, but because he carries with him bitterness over something that was, for most people, just another part of life. Sad that he feels the need to defend children who, by and large, don't need defending. Sad that he hasn't gotten over it. Most children do.

For most of the boys I grew up with, a paddling was a badge of honor -- you didn't intentionally seek it, but when it was delivered, your ability to take it and come back smiling was undeniable proof of your courage. Maybe we were just a bunch of hooligans, but in my opinion, paddling was the only thing that kept our classroom from resembling a zoo.

-- Jeff Crook

I guess I view things a little differently. It seems to me that the author is living proof that so-called corporal punishment works. He stated plainly that he never required paddling again. However, he feels that because this lesson was learned via fear that it was barbaric. In reality fear is what makes us a decent and "moral" society.

What keeps us from running red lights, speeding, commiting robbery, cheating on our taxes or punching a colleague when we disagree? Most would say it's our moral fiber or our basically good human nature. But in reality it's fear. Fear of getting a ticket or being arrested. Fear of fines or being fired from your job. Without fear there is no external motivation to behave in a socially exceptable manner. Look at third world countries or countries whose law enforcment infrastructure has collapsed. Where there is no fear of punishment (corporal or not) there is no reason to "behave."

The idea that corporal punishment is "bad" stems from the idea that a so-called advanced society should be able to reason with a child and modify their behavior through dialogue. As we all know, children do not have the fundamental knowledge of or the experience with cause and effect. As adults we tend to project our own feelings and opinions onto a child. We assume that since we don't need spankings to teach us right and wrong that children don't either.

One could use the anology of teaching children about fire. You can tell a child every day of its life that fire burns, but the lesson is never brought home until the child is burned for the first time. Until this point the idea that fire equals pain is purely theoretical. Theories require proof.

As parents you can attempt to teach your child the finer points of right and wrong, but the lesson isn't brought home until the child learns that our actions not only harm others but have consequences for ourselves, too. Paddling should always be used as a last resort. But we cannot deny its effectiveness in teaching children that acting in an unacceptable manner not only affects others but themselves.

-- David Curran

Seldom has a story brought back such a rush of emotion as the essay on corporal punishment. My own experience was in the fall of 1975 in eighth grade P.E. at Jacksonville (Texas) Jr. High School. The crime: not having the proper tennis shoes. The punishment: five "licks" or hits with the paddle. Now 26 years later and a husband, father and attorney, I still burn with resentment at the punishment I received at the hands of that sadistic P.E. teacher. I wish that I could be more shocked that this barbaric practice continues, but frankly I think it is just one symptom of a country that is besotted with a violent culture.

-- John Griffin

Mr. Gup's article does nothing to confirm that paddling negatively affects the children who are disciplined. Rather, he takes the typical self-centered baby boomer way out, whining about his feelings, and how it affected him. By his own accounts and bio, he turned out to be a normal, healthy member of society, despite his glaringly obvious navel gazing.

Americans spend altogether too much time complaining about how bad our lives have been, as if they aren't the luckiest people in the history of the world. While most liberal-minded people blanch at the thought of a child being spanked in school (or at home), one needs only look at the rise in "thug" crime among white-bread suburban kids these days. Think their parents swatted them? Don't you wish someone had? I'd prefer a kid with stinging buttocks to a kid with no sense of consequences. Just because Mr. Gup is a whining sissy, doesn't mean the rest of American kids aren't tough enough to take the punishment they deserve.

-- Abbey Castle

After so much debate by psychologists and educators on the subject of corporal punishment, it's good to see a reflection by an adult on exactly how this barbaric practice damages our kids. This is a welcome antidote to the "I got my share of beatings and I'm OK" nonsense you hear from so many proponents of the rod.

It's really true: We subject children to brutalities we wouldn't tolerate one adult forcing upon another. And what do kids learn by it? That if someone less powerful than you does something you don't like, a good way to make them stop is to hit them. It's yet another way our priorities concerning our children are suspect, to say the least.

If the infliction of pain and rule by fear are what it takes to make kids be "orderly," give me unruliness every time. But I can't believe that you can't raise children without intimidation. My own family's motto was always that if you can't outsmart a child you don't deserve to have one. Such a pity that so many parents and educators have an imagination that stops at two feet of wooden cudgel.

-- Dan Layman-Kennedy

Read "What Are We Fighting For?" by Lisa Moricoli Latham

"What are we fighting for?" After reading Lisa Latham's article, I still don't know the answer to that question.

In order to distance herself from the pain of loss, Latham insists on talking about losing a pregnancy. This is way too abstract for me. I've lost an embryo, as she has: I've also lost a blighted ovum and a perfect 4-month fetus. In each case, what I lost was a dream, the potential of a child.

I'm glad she finds the term "chemical pregancy" comforting. But it matters little what science calls these states. What matters is the meaning we choose to give them.

I'm not so glad that she repeats as fact the comforting statement that this is nature's way of culling defective lifestuff. Maybe that's what happened -- maybe not. Life is abundant and profligate, and human potential is wasted in all sorts of ways, at all sorts of times.

I'm pro-choice. But I don't get there by convenient definitions of life. I get there by free will and hard choices.

I fear reducing our view of life to biochemistry and events happening in petri dishes and test tubes. These "cells" derive power from our relationship with them and from their own potential. We should not shed them as we do dead skin, without a thought.

What we are fighting for, it seems to me, is our humanity. Not just the tiny part of DNA that separates us from primates. But our ability to see, with love and imagination, a new universe in a few dividing cells.

-- Chris McLaughlin


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