Zero Tolerance for Children’s Lives


What do you do when a student has a knife at school?

It’s the gym period and the supplies are in a locked box, they key is nowhere to be found, kids are restless and anxious.

Johnny, in an effort to help, steps forward, pulls out a switchblade and pops the lock.  Technically that’s a weapon that should get you suspended and probably expelled.

He sees the look in the teacher’s eyes and starts to explain.  He and his girlfriend take the bus home into Deep East Oakland, and he needs it to protect her.  He doesn’t say it, but it’s probably to protect him too.

And these fears are probably not misplaced, both his parents were murdered, and he had grown up in violence, substance abuse, and who knows what else.  And parts of Oakland do have that Hobbesian sense of the state of nature, where life is often “nasty, brutish, and short.”  Where the strong take from the weak, and you have to fight to keep yours.

So, what to do.  You can report him, he will get suspended, maybe expelled, probably get a warning that if he ever brings a weapon again that’s it.  He might even get arrested, as switchblades are illegal.  And, I believe him, that he needs it.  He also might get attacked, his girlfriend might, he may not be able to defend himself.  So what to do?

The teacher told him to just put it away, never show it in school again, to anyone for any reason.  That was that.  It never surfaced again in school.  Though his realities remained.

And to me, it made sense he had a weapon, that is the world we have given him, one where he needs to fear for his physical safety, and nobody else will be there to protect him.

And so often, we aren’t punishing children for their behavior (as we like to tell ourselves) we are punishing them for their lives, for the trauma they have experienced and its outward expression, for our inability to provide for their basic safety or security, their learning differences, or wellness issues, for the threats we perceive them to pose, and their coping mechanisms in a crazy world in which they did not ask to be born, and we have not yet made safe for them.

What do you think?

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