“I don’t think this entire nation has figured out how to treat black children”: The Zero Tolerance Generation, Pt VI

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Previously: Part Five

I talked with a number of teachers for this series. Most refused to go on the record for fear of potential consequences. Many didn’t like zero-tolerance policies, but also talked about the steady gutting of resources and the bizarre vicissitudes the frenzy for test scores has created in the educational process.

One, who works in an elementary school in a North Carolina city, agreed to be quoted on the condition that I use an alias.

Cybil Tanner was in high school in when Columbine happened, a “goody two-shoes” who managed to mostly escape the zero-tolerance crackdowns that followed (her sister wasn’t so lucky, she noted, and got a three-day suspension for a dubious charge). Just in her years in the classroom, she’s seen services cut and cut again, harming teachers’ ability to know their students or to deal with the particularly troubled ones before their issues get worse.

“I’ve been a teacher for eight years, and bit by bit I’ve seen the resources decrease,” she says. “Both from state and local levels, it’s gone down.”

“When you know your students you understand the situation and don’t blow it out of proportion,” Tanner says. “You know if they just had a pocketknife from a camping trip or if they have a history of violence.”

Her school’s policies call for automatic suspension for a weapon, for example, for a time at the discretion of the principal. Fortunately, she says, her principal has generally been reasonable—he’ll call a parent when a minor pocketknife-type incident comes up.

“But that’s because he knew the students, if the principal hadn’t, there weren’t connections with the community, things could have gone differently…”

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