LAST SPRING, the Anne Arundel County school board approved an important disciplinary policy cracking down on student violence. Since the start of the school year, however, it has become clear that the real challenge involves enforcing the policy in a manner that's consistent, yet fair; that distinguishes between zero-tolerance offenses and those where circumstances should be taken into account.
Questions about how the policy is being enforced arose last week, when several teachers complained to the board that the system is turning a blind eye toward some offenses, particularly those committed by elementary level children. A Brock Bridge Elementary teacher complained that school officials have yet to offer support or counseling since a 10-year-old recently punched her in the back, leaving her with a bad case of whiplash.
This incident, teacher representatives said, exemplifies how the policy is being enforced selectively. Actually, it does no such thing. The 10-year-old has been suspended, exactly as the policy recommends. School officials seem to have failed in this case to address the emotional needs of the teacher and other students who witnessed the assault. But the disciplinary policy itself was followed, as it should have been.
In school, as in the rest of society, certain offenses are so serious that they must be met with automatic and severe punishment, regardless of circumstance. Assaulting a teacher is one of them. Carrying weapons and illegal drugs to school are others. The temptation to make exceptions for younger children who commit these infractions must be resisted. Their individual needs can be met through counseling and remedial programs, but the symbolic price of suspension or expulsion must be levied to send a message to all that the safety and preservation of authority are sacrosanct.
Other student misbehaviors may fall into gray areas. The challenge here involves being fair without looking wishy-washy. One kid punches another at lunch. Was he bullying, or reacting to an insult or meanness? It's important to discern the truth and act accordingly, both for the sake of individual fairness and of eliciting the respect of other children, who won't grow up respecting authority if they associate it with injustice.