Judging people without context can lead to trouble

kiera_wilmot.jpgKIERA WILMOT


(AP)–It’s clear that being a kid today, in 2013 America, is different than other generations remember.

As with everything, there’s good and there’s bad. The good? Amazing technological advances makes information on anything literally at your fingertips. The bad? Danger seems to be lurking around every corner, and sometimes it feels like no place is truly safe.

That said, it’s clear our nation’s schools are trying to do their best to keep our kids safe. But at what cost? Over the past decade and a half, in the shadow of the Columbine shooting and the country’s continued battle on drugs, many schools have taken a zero tolerance policy on a host of issues, from bringing weapons or pills to campus, to violence against fellow students and faculty (Yet, we still can’t get a handle on bullying?).

Certainly you can understand the effort. But if our legal system has taught us anything, it’s that judging people without context can lead to trouble. For your consideration:
Dateline: Bartow, Florida. Last month, a 16-year-old student arrives at school, early on a Monday, to work on a science experiment. As Miami’s News Times reports: “Kiera Wilmot got good grades and had a perfect behavior record. She wasn’t the kind of kid you’d expect to find hauled away in handcuffs and expelled from school, but that’s exactly what happened after an attempt at a science project went horribly wrong.”

Wilmot mixed some chemicals in a plastic bottle. The reaction “caused a small explosion that caused the top to pop up and produced some smoke. No one was hurt and no damage was caused.” Her principal would later tell a local TV station that “She wanted to see what would happen (when the chemicals mixed) and was shocked by what it did. Her mother is shocked, too.” He added he didn’t believe she meant to hurt anyone.

Wilmot was taken into custody by a school resources officer, was charged (including a felony) and will be tried as an adult. Suffice to say, she was also expelled from school. Last week, when asked about the punishment, the school district said that children need to learn “there are consequences for their actions.”

Dateline: Sumter, South Carolina. Earlier this year, a 6-year-old brings her brother’s clear plastic toy gun to class — to show her friends as she’ll later tell a local TV station — and not only was expelled from class, but, as New York’s Daily News reports, “Little Naomi McKinney is apparently such a threat that a district official sent a letter … warning her parents that if she’s caught on school grounds she’ll be ‘subject to the criminal charge of trespassing.'”

That report had references to three other, similar incidents from the past several months, from around the country.
Yes, we need to be sensitive, perhaps overly so, to certain things most adults may roll their eyes at. (After all, as mentioned above, these are different times.) Is bringing a clear plastic toy gun to school a mistake? Of course. Does a 6-year-old comprehend the severity of that action? Of course not. Can mixing chemicals at school be dangerous? Of course. Should authorities consider the context of that action — conducting the experiment well before school, when no other students were around; Wilmot’s prior record — in this case? Yes!

There’s a fine line between keeping students safe and ruining their academic careers (sometimes before they even begin, as in the case of the kindergarten student). Might we suggest schools embrace near-zero-tolerance policies, on these and other issues students are challenged by on a daily basis.

Editorial The Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, May 2, 3013

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