Last year, Minnesota high schools hit a record high of 314 student expulsions, most of which were a result of suspected weapons or drug possession. The occurrence of numerous school shootings in the past year, most memorably the Columbine massacre, has apparently caused society to become increasingly anxious and suspicious of our nation’s teenagers.
Media attention given to recent instances of school violence has scared students, parents and educators across the nation. Many schools in the nation as a result have adopted strict zero-tolerance discipline policies. This policy has eased the minds of many parents and administrators, but it is not in the best interest of students. According to Minnesota law, for example, a student can be kicked out of school for up to 12 months for any “willful violation” substantially disrupting the education of other students or endangering students or school property. That law is extreme considering how school administrators could choose to interpret it. The number of expulsions in Minnesota schools reveals how poorly educators and society are choosing to deal with these problems.
The message that these policies are sending to students is that anyone with disciplinary problems is not worth trying to help or rehabilitate. The notion that these individuals are better off as outsiders is wrong and dangerous. Dealing with students in this manner greatly damages an already fragile self-esteem and does not fix the existing problem — it only makes it worse. When adults label a child an outcast, their peers will treat them accordingly.
The social labeling theory of criminology, devised by Howard Becker, is a good example of how policies such as these can have damaging long-term affects on kids. According to the social labeling theory, a criminal career can come about as a result of an individual being stigmatized by society because of a prior minor indiscretion for which they were severely punished. For example, a Virginia student was recently expelled because he was in possession of a small pocketknife at school. This kind of extreme over-reaction to a minor and presumably unintentional offense is exactly what the labeling theory states can lead to more deviant behavior. Because this student was expelled, he will be ostracized by his peers and be expected to fulfill the role of a deviant. Being that the zero-tolerance policy is causing more harm than good, other means of discipline need to be established.
Many institutions have realized this and have been moving away from strict zero-tolerance policies to policies that would better deal with the individual and their situation. This move accounts for the report, released by the Department of Children, Families and Learning, that the number of expulsions in Minnesota has decreased slightly this year. Nationwide, however, institutional policies such as this are still the standard for many schools. Making students and faculty feel safe at school should be a number-one priority, but there must be a more effective way to do it.