Zero Tolerance Drug Policies: No Tolerance, Pleny of Punishment

I got an unexpected call yesterday from a parent of one of my daughter’s friends.  He didn’t realize he knew me at first, he was so absorbed in his purpose.  It seems the city where I live  has a zero tolerance drug policy in its schools, which means if a student commits a drug offense, the student is expelled for 365 days and sent to an “alternative education” center.  I actually found it excedingly difficult to find out exactly what constitutes a drug offense.  Possibly, being under the influence, but it may require actual possession.

That’s not really my issue, anyway.  Here’s the thing:  two other friends of my daughter (not the caller’s child), along with one of their sisters, got high before school.  One child actually carried some into school with her.  Now, whether someone figured out that they were stoned, or someone told on them, or if a teacher saw the actual material, they got busted.

Zero tolerance.  Three hundred sixty-five days out of school.

The parent was calling to urge people to go to the school administration building for a hearing, in order to protest the severity of the sentence.

My feelings on this are mixed.  Yes, I do believe a year out of school is excessive for a first offense, especially for the two students who didn’t have any drugs on their person.

And I can’t help but wonder if being in an alternative school is really a good idea for a few kids who aren’t that bad.  I am not saying they are innocent at all.  In fact, I do think they merit some kind of intervention, and not based on this incident alone.

But if we want to save kids who might be making some missteps, do we want to make the same mistakes we make with petty criminals by sending them to spend time interacting with other kids who are troubled?  And, in light of a local report stating that this particular high school’s drop out rate is higher than the state average, don’t we want to prevent what seems like an open door to dropping out?  A year off track in their regular school might be just the thing that derails them permanently.

I haven’t decided yet what to do.  I can’t help but wonder if a little more parent fervor before this happened, about the choices these kids are making, might be more appropriate than the current action.

I don’t pretend that my daughter doesn’t make bad choices.  In fact, I know she does.  But I also make clear my position on those things, and the consequences, just as the school policy does.  She is old enough to know that when you choose certain things there is a price to pay.  I just hope she sees how dear that price really is.


16 Responses to “Zero Tolerance Drug Policies: No Tolerance, Pleny of Punishment”

  1. I’m assuming this is a public school, right? We allow folks to potentially be on publicly funded assistance without determining their drug use status, but we have zero tolerance for it in the publicly funded school system? I think the punishment is extremely severe. Let the parents and justice system take care of the punishment. I agree with you, this is just one more way to push kids out the door and not tend to their academic course of study–which is why schools exist in the first place. Ugh, frustrating.

    Alternative schools will be, if best, only marginally effective in punishing/rehabilitating/educating any student, especially those kids who may actually give two craps about their future, but happen to be in the “follies of their youth” and experimenting with drugs. I don’t support drug use or condone it one bit, but I also don’t think it’s up to the school to determine the punishment. How about requiring a clean drug test before the child can resume their normal schedule? No need to ship them off to annex. I’d like to clarify that drugs on school property is not tolerable and should (again) be handled by the criminal justice system in the same way the would handle finding drugs anywhere else.

    Truth be told, this whole “war on drugs” is a farce anyway. DARE and all that jazz obviously aren’t working and they are…get ready…public school programs!!! This is a personal issue that should be handled by parents and other care providers. And yes, if parents want to handle this differently, or want to take the control and power of decision out of the schools hands, they need to make their voices heard. Sometimes it seems that an issue may be a little too little and a little too late. But if not now, when? If not here, where? If not me, who? Good luck with this. I know it has to be tough–I’m grateful I’m not to this stage of parenthood.

    • Well said, Dana. This also makes me try to reconcile my view on marijuana decriminalization with how I feel about teenagers doing it. I don’t think a bunch of non-violent criminals belong in prison, nor do I necessarily think teens who experiment with pot should be kicked out of school for a year. But I also don’t think those teens should be smoking.
      It leaves me to wonder the same thing I always do – where are the parents? I can see a kid slipping up, but what about the ones who are definitely on a dangerous path? We all laugh about pot being a “gateway drug” (along with spinning, and sugar, and coffee *gasp!*), but the truth is that a teen who is messing around with it probably is heading in a potentially bad direction. I’m not speaking theoretically, either. I often think if my parents had expressed more concern with my behavior instead of taking the “everybody does it” mental road, I might have ended up living quite a different (and much easier, less emotionally scarred) life.
      Of course, now I understand just how much nicer it is for a parent to bury her head in the sand.

  2. I don’t think the severity of the punishment fits the “crime” at ALL!! Wow! Essentially expelled for a year? For being stoned? I don’t mean to suggest that being stoned at school is a good idea, it isn’t. But what is expulsion going to teach them? Nothing.
    I find it odd, and many philosophies in Canada are the same as they appear to be in the US, that we are so quick to jump in with such harsh reactions to smoking pot when we are relatively lenient on the use of alcohol. Alcohol is a much more addictive drug but because it is the legal drug of choice (for impairment, cigarettes are obviously more addictive) a blind eye is often turned to its use. I do not know what the school policies are where you are to children arriving drunk but I suspect that there are far more parents who would be quick to support keeping the children in the school if alcohol were the drug they had presented with as opposed to pot.
    My primary response to this whole situation (as you describe it) is that the harsher the punishment, the greater the likelihood that the child will do it again. The more we, as parents and people in roles of authority, say “no” the more the people we are authorizing go underground. I suspect a really great way to ensure these children try stronger and stronger narcotics is to impose extremely harsh penalties for their actions. They will test the limits and see what their own limitations are and what those are of the people they are taking orders from.
    They are children. Children learn by exploring. Yes, some children explore things and situations we don’t want to explored. That’s what being a parent is all about. We talk to them about it, answer all of their questions about it, help them create an environment where safe exploration — if required — is possible and make our own feelings on the situation abundantly clear all the while LISTENING to our children about why they are making this particular choice. It is a familial matter though and I don’t think it is one to be hashed out in the school.
    Just my .02 Hope you don’t mind. You did ask for opinions on this.
    Take care and I hope the situation resolves itself in a favourable manner for everyone.

    • Sam and Chris, I’m thrilled with your thoughtful responses. This is exactly what I was hoping for – meaningful discourse. Again, it comes back to the parents, and the problem might well be that our idea of school has evolved over time to mean more of a surrogate parent. We expect, and sometimes even demand, that the school take on the role of behavior police, moral educator and character developer. Wherever you stand on the philosophical spectrum, this is unacceptable. No one knows your children like you do. It should be your job to shape their characters. I don’t mean to say you should shelter them excessively, but I know for my children, I am their best source of guidance. (As an aside, I realize not every parent can and should make that claim. I do my best to know what evidence says is healthy and good for my children, and I parent each of them according to their particular needs.)

  3. I have very mixed feelings about this policy. It’s amazing how as humans we are so double-minded in all of our ways. I probably shouldn’t even weigh in on this debate, but as a tax payer, my money is going to pay for the education of these children, whether or not I choose to utilize the system for the education of my own children.

    My main concern is that if a “zero tolerance” policy was actually working then students would be less inclined to show up to school under the influence. Unfortunately, this seems far from the case. Also, I am concerned with the idea that “alternative education” is for “bad kids” while “regular education” is for “good kids”. I don’t know about you, but I was never a “good person” and I got a “regular education”. People should not be categorized and thrown away by society in that manner, especially at such a young age.

    What happened to the idea that education was for the purpose of learning information, while setting boundaries and doling out punishments were for the purpose of behavior modification? Very few people that I went to school with looked at suspension as anything other than a vacation or expulsion as anything other than an excuse for permanent failure. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I do not that this is not an acceptable solution. I do know that students who got “in school suspension” or “Saturday School” seemed to get the picture much faster than those who were just dropped from the roll.

    Where we live, I have spoken to many a teen who insisted on intentionally messing up so that they could be sent to the “alternative school”. They know there that the class size is smaller, the teachers are there because they want to work with “those kinds of kids”, and so they have a better chance for success there. I don’t know about you, but I find that a sad commentary.

  4. My initial reaction is that it’s pretty harsh, BUT: I also don’t know much about what it’s like to try and run a school system and find the best ways to handle these chronic issues. I’d like to know how long this policy has been in effect and what data is there to support its effectiveness in deterring the incidents. In an ideal world, we can say we want a lot of things left to the parents, but remember that there are many, many parents who are not addressing their kids’ issues, who don’t even give a damn about their kids. So by default, a lot of things end up falling onto the lap of the system. So really, I don’t have a good answer, but I do have a child at that school so I am interested in staying informed. And I agree with Coachmom’s comments about alternative programs.

  5. I do want to be clear that I do not believe that any drug use is valuable to it’s user. I just meant that I believe the system is failing on all sides of this issue when it comes to the education of these students.

  6. Ok, here is my .02. Unfortuately, it is from person experience. My daughter attended public school in Bedford, VA. Yes, I will put it out there after this experience. She lived with her dad and she decided to give pot a try with her step-brother. They got caught and ended up being tested at home to make sure they didn’t do it anymore. I totaly supported that. She had tested clean and promised me that she wasn’t using. I trust her and took her word for it. She was going to move from Bedford back to Indiana, where I live, after graduation. She and her dad had “personal differences” and led to me going down there the week before graduation. I end up receiving a call from the school telling me they had an “anonymous” tip to check my daughter’s purse. They pull her from class, during exams, and “check it out”. They found an ounce of pot on the inside of her purse that was zipped. They tested her and she was clean. They called me and released her into my custody, but she was not allowed back on school ground. She, also, was not allowed to be with her graduating class for the graduation march. Later that day the superintendent called me. She would still get her diploma, but they would mail it to her. I believe in my heart and in my daughter that it wasn’t hers. She was so close to what she had worked hard for to just throw it away over something like dope. Irregardless, the officer at the high shcool ended up pressing charges against her. She ended up having to do 48 hours community service once she moved to Indiana. She is a great kid and is now in college. I know this experience is unique and I hope no parent has to go through this, ever.

    Even when I was in high school most of the “good kids” were the biggest dope users! Zero tolerance should be for the knives and things that are an immediate harm. Discipline for the marijuana, but to treat them the way there are now is not what I consider “fair”.

    Communication with our children is the biggest “key” we hold. Without that our children are lost. We can tell them what we have learned through life and hope they make the right decisions. If they fall, be there for them to help pick them up. These are just things I’ve learned with our blended family. We have five great kids ages 22, 21, 18, 17 & 8. The three oldest are in college, I am proud to say. Overall, I think we’re doing alright with the obstacles we have delt with.

  7. Punishments like this are draconian and idiotic. I got caught doing the same thing when I was in high school in the late 70s. I got a 3 day suspension, parents were brought in, and I cleaned up my act. Frankly most of these kind of problems are parental in nature and policies like this are like treating a broken arm with a hammer. And don’t get me started on the drinking thing.

    When our son got into some trouble in high school, I jerked him out and home schooled him for a year and a half. Through that experience we learned he had some serious learning problems. Parents need to man up and school districts need to adopt rules that work. One punishment does not fit all.

  8. Mom Blogs – Blogs for Moms…

  9. everythinginorder Says:

    All I can say is phewwww! Glad they didn’t have this kind of harsh punishment when I was a teenager. I was a very naughty girl in high school. That’s all I’ll say. – Carole

  10. My husband is an alternative school teacher. He is amazing, thoughtful, and gifted at what he does. He teaches the kids who need the best teachers, for a variety of reasons.
    the world is a lot less elastic and forgiving than it once was.

    • If only all teachers could be that way. I can imagine that David is an incredible source of direction and good sense to the kids lucky enough to have him. It is funny that the kids who need the best teachers often get the worst. And by funny, I mean incredibly sad and pathetic.

  11. The rules are fairly simple. The schools are serious about enforcing them. What;s truly terrible is how the judiciary system babies juveniles along giving them very few REAL consequences for escalating behavior until they 18, then WHAM, serious adult, permanent record felony time.

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