Growing up in the St. Paul public school system, I only remember “zero tolerance” as the standard operating procedure for discipline. Obviously, this went for major offenses, such as weapons or drugs on school grounds, but it also applied in many situations that were not so immediately applicable, leading to suspension for acts like fighting or even disrespecting teachers. Police officers were a common sight in school (I even knew one by name), and officers on horseback were present for about a week following a rather large fight that ended in 16 arrests. My experience seems to echo what is happening across the nation, as zero tolerance has led to huge, and racially imbalanced, suspension rates, a “school to prison pipeline” that leaves students stranded on the fringes of society and has no measurable effect on school violence.
The problems with a zero tolerance mentality go deeper than statistics like these, impacting the entire life of the school. Particularly in urban schools, where police officers are already largely seen unfavorably, creating an environment that focuses on punishment and law enforcement places a real strain on the relationship between students and schools. If schools are seen as draconian institutions of punishment, how can students be expected to engage in their education?
This strained relationship has major implications as Minnesota seeks to implement mental health education into the health curriculum. The language in the recent education omnibus bill is vague, but it is apparent that Minnesota is trying to get on the mental healthcare bandwagon that even President Obama has been strongly touting. Mental health is a huge issue for today’s youth, and while the new focus on it is admirable, mental health education goes beyond just giving students information.
To make this topic resonate, and to truly help students who may be struggling, schools must create a safe environment to explore and express issues of mental health. If the students cannot trust the schools to do more than enact one-size-fits-all punishments for acting out, there is no way they can trust the schools to receive their concerns openly, as the stigma of mental health issues continues to plague the discussion. Mental health care is a proactive practice, and the reactive environment of schools must be changed for this education to truly meet new standards. Restorative justice can help, and there are plans and support for this kind of model. As we try to find a way to make mental health education a reality, the first step seems to be creating an environment where that education can truly take place.