Is this the face of a sexual harasser?
Hunter Yelton, seen above, a six-year-old boy from Canon City, Colorado, was recently suspended from school for kissing a girl on the hand. Yes, you read that correctly.
“It was during class,” first-grader Hunter said in an interview with CNN affiliate KRDO. “We were doing reading group, and I leaned over and kissed her on the hand. That’s what happened.”
Not only did Hunter’s kiss get him suspended from school, but the school also accused him of sexual harassment.
However, after the story made national news, bringing a tidal wave of negative publicity, the Canon City school district had to back down: officials decided to let Hunter return to Lincoln School of Science & Technology and changed his offense from “sexual harassment” to “misconduct.”
offense from “sexual harassment” to “misconduct.”
According to some reports, this was not the first time that Hunter had been in trouble for a similar offense. He’d previously been disciplined for kissing the same girl on the cheek and “rough housing” her. Most importantly, the 6-year-old recipient of his attention had asked him to stop.
So, yes, Hunter needs to be disciplined; he needs to understand that boys do not have the right to bully girls. He knew what he was doing, and he needs to recognize that his behavior was inappropriate.
However, suspending this first grader from school and labeling him a sexual harasser did not help him learn him any of these lessons.
Blatant Over-Reach Of Zero Tolerance Policies
Such blatant misuse of “zero tolerance” policies is leading educators nationwide to question this get-tough approach.
It was after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 that schools across the county established zero tolerance policies. Obviously this was done with the best of intentions, but there have been plenty of unintended consequences.
More enlightened thinking in educational circles these days is questioning the use of suspensions as punishment. As many teachers are aware, kids often enjoy those days at home, when they can play games, watch TV, do just as they please all day long.
But there’s also mounting evidence that get-tough policies in schools are leading to arrest records, low academic achievement and high dropout rates.
Indeed, the statistics show that this approach to discipline leads to a “school-to-prison-pipeline,” in which students — a disproportionate number of whom are African-American — are arrested and incarcerated for alleged infractions of school discipline that in some cases are as minor as defiance. This accelerates the path to dropout and a lifetime of entanglement with the law.
So it is encouraging to see more cities and school districts around the country rethinking their approach to minor offenses. Moving away from a culture of punishment, they are initiating positive approaches that keep children in school.
Restorative justice is the name of a program increasingly offered in schools seeking an alternative to “zero tolerance” policies like suspension, expulsion and truancy courts.
Since suspending students, or sending them to court, often leads to academic failure, thereby perpetuating the very behavior it is seeking to address, restorative justice instead provides a way of addressing negative behavior by keeping a student at school and using various means to encourage the offender to take responsibility and make amends.
The approach is taking root in schools in Oakland, Calif., as well as in Chicago, Denver and Portland, and also in Broward County, Florida.
As The New York Times reports, just two years ago, the school district had more students arrested on school campuses than any other district in the state, most of them for minor infractions.
Rather than push children out of school, districts like Broward are now doing the opposite: choosing to keep lawbreaking students in school, away from trouble on the streets, and offering them counseling and other assistance aimed at changing behavior.
These alternative efforts are increasingly supported, sometimes even led, by state juvenile justice directors, judges and police officers.
In Broward, which had more than 1,000 arrests in the 2011 school year, the school district entered into a wide-ranging agreement last month with local law enforcement, the juvenile justice department and civil rights groups like the N.A.A.C.P. to overhaul its disciplinary policies and de-emphasize punishment.
Suspensions Down 66 Percent
As a result, school-based arrests have dropped by 41 percent, and suspensions, which in 2011 added up to 87,000 out of 258,000 students, are down 66 percent from the same period in 2012, school data shows.
Zero tolerance policies still have a place in our schools, when used with common sense. There are a host of infractions for which they are necessary, including bringing drugs or weapons to school and fighting. But they have no place in dealing with minor infractions such as a six-year-old kissing the hand of his classmate.
What do you think?
Photo Credit: KRDO online video