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What Zero Tolerance does | The Need For A Papertrail | The School's Response | Establishing your paper trail
The bottom line is that schools are afraid of getting sued. And, quite frankly, in this litigious society, that is a valid concern.
In the wake of the Columbine shooting rampage, multiple suits were filed against the police and sheriff departments as well as the school district by the families of slain victims. The anguished cry of "Why didn't you protect our children?" went across the airwaves of America and through the courts of Colorado.
The simple fact is, none of these agencies could have prevented the killing spree by two alienated, suicidal teens.
So common sense tells us that these agencies were not to blame for the two gunmen deciding to randomly shoot others and finally themselves.
However, the "deep pockets" idea of civil suits tells us that it is more lucrative to sue an organization than the families of the deceased gunmen.
Unfortunately, the way our legal system is slanted these days it makes this extremely easy to do. To quote a friend of ours "When twenty lawyers get on a plane, you know somebody is going to get sued." No sooner had the dust settled than litigation began, lawyers asserting that the schools were "responsible" for not doing something to prevent this tragedy. Therefore it only makes sense that the schools are taking measures to indemnify themselves against these kinds of suits. Zero tolerance policies do exactly that.
What they don't necessarily do is protect your child.
We are not dismissing the potential value of the policies that the schools have implemented. They can, and often do, resolve problems between students. On the other hand, they often create different problems. Problems that occur with more frequency than a random rampage(1).
That becomes particularly relevant when it comes to zero tolerance polices. Because those are what you and your child are more likely to get tripped up by. Knowing this, let us tell you an unpleasant truth: You would be extremely naive to believe the schools aren't covering their butts with those police -- at the expense of the children.
Basically this policy gives the school the ability to throw your child out of school for engaging in self-defense. If your child does anything other than submit to a beating, he/she will be thrown out of school -- and even then there's a good chance of expulsion.
By categorizing all use of force as "violence" the school doesn't have to contend with investigation, conflicting statements, student rights or extenuating circumstances.
If a situation goes physical, it's your problem
-- not theirs. Zero Tolerance allows the
school to "wash its hands" of the whole affair and hand
the situation over to law enforcement and the courts.
In fact, there is a scene out of the movie "Men In
Black" that one should keep in mind regarding this
situation -- as it defines both the problem and why our
Coroner: What's with the cat?
Cop: (Hands her a clipboard) Sign here
Cop: Yeah...well, the cat's a problem...
Coroner: (Handing back the signed clipboard) What's the problem?
Cop: It's your problem now.
The signed "paper trail" is what makes it "somebody else's problem" A point we cannot stress enough: If your child finds him/herself in conflict with another student, the school will create a paper trail for its benefit -- NOT yours.
If the situation goes physical, the school, can justify that it did "everything possible" to work out the problem, but that your child and the other student continued to escalate the situation. They not only have the grounds to dismiss both children, but also the documentation of them doing "everything possible" to resolve the problem -- and the fact that your child was "informed" of the consequences. Furthermore, your child's continued involvement in the conflict is going to be viewed as "participation" in the problem and grounds for suspension, if not expulsion.
Since the school is on "its side," more than yours, if you are looking for any kind of resolution, you better know how to motivate the school to look out not only for itself, but your child too.
for a Papertrail
Let's take a look at the difference between the school doing "everything possible" to prevent a problem and doing "everything necessary to cover its butt."
The two are NOT the same.
And while we are at it, let's look at the importance of creating your own paper trail to protect yourself and your child. We guarantee you that if the school knows you are creating a paper trail, the results you get will be "everything possible" as opposed to "the school is covered." The reason for this is: Paper trails are a double edged sword. And as Masaad Ayoob often says: When holding a double edged sword, make sure the sharper edge is pointed towards the other guy. If you have a paper trail as well, then that sharp edge is pointing back at the school.
To begin with, realize that without documentation to support your actions, decisions and instructions to your child, it all boils down to "he said, she said." And that is where things get difficult. This especially applies for anything involving children. If you think about it as a parent, you will realize exactly what we mean. How many times have you broken up a fight between your children and -- in unison -- they scream "HE/SHE STARTED IT!" When, in fact, both are equally culpable in the creation of the problem. Yes there may have been the one who attacked first, but there were things that lead up to it.
If you want positive results, you have to recognize the significance of this issue. That means know the troubles inherent with it and plan for it in your strategy.
No matter who "started" it: It takes two to fight. And unfortunately, most conflicts between kids are more often fights rather than self-defense. That's because fighting is about establishing dominance and the pecking order. People who are jockeying for position tend to create conditions for conflict. And this includes the person feeling the need to respond to perceived violations. Worse yet, one can assume bullying is a ham handed youthful version of the sane behavior, but without the sophistication of later years. Often bullying is a complex blend of inexperience, not knowing when to stop, playing with new found power, over reaction to perceived challenges regarding the "bully's" status. As silly as it may seem to those seeing it from an outside perspective, bullies are hypersensitive to this issue. As such they react in extremis, both in how they deal with violations and how they deal with people who are not able to defend themselves.
In a school situation, if you have two children who are in conflict, this dual culpability is assumed. The truth is, this is most often a correct assumption. In a functional, non-blaming sense, both have contributed to the problem and that is how it is going to be dealt with by the school's administration.
The following paragraph is not about blame, it is about the reality of conflict. It is also why you must plan for this assumption of dual guilt in your strategy. Remember preteens/teenagers have different behavioral standards and they do not have mature social skills. So literally, something that an adult would dismiss (e.g. a small comment or overly long look) are taken very much to heart by people of this age group -- on both sides. These emotionally charged perceptions and actions loom large in the youthful way of looking at the world, more so than parental or authoritarian warnings! All it takes is one comment or "look" and the problem is off and running again. This is made even more likely because there is a strong urge to have "the last word" at this age. A "last word" that reignites the whole problem. One should also *never* underestimate the urge to taunt or "rub it in" that youths have after an authority has ruled. Again, it works both way, whether "neener neener neener! You got in trouble!" or the "I'll get you yet!", both attitudes continue the problem after adult intervention.
All it will take is a chance meeting and a "look" and the situation erupts again -- with both parties convinced that they were the "wronged," the other person started it and they did nothing to instigate the problem. And from their perspectives, that is exactly what happened, the other person started it. This combination of self-delusion, emotional and social immaturity makes it very difficult to determine what really happened vs. what was their perception of what happened. Even a child who is being "bullied" will usually have engaged in some sort of "verbal escalation." What an adult would view as establishing boundaries, an aggressive teen would consider an insult and justification for further action. It is these immature perceptions that will determine their course of action, not rational discourse or commonsense. As such, you can begin to see why the assumption of dual guilt is so often accurate.
This is why, before you proceed with any action on the behalf of your child you must be sure that your child is not contributing to the escalation of the problem!
By this we don't just mean fumbling while trying to "establish boundaries" in hopes of preventing conflict, but actually going out and egging the situation on. We already know that teenaged perceptions are a little skewed, but now you have to make sure that your child hasn't done something to instigate and/or escalate this problem.
The reason is that you are about to "pull the mountain down" on someone's head and you had better make sure that it isn't on your own head. If your child is, in anyway, engaged in the escalation of this problem, our advice will "backfire" on you. It will not only cost you money, time and effort to no avail, but it will actually assist in the school having grounds to expel your child. It can also assist the police in arresting your child and give the other child's parents documentation to pursue legal action.
A common procedure with school districts, when students are in conflict, is to hold, what we call, a "Can't we all just get along?" meeting (different districts use different terms). These are often hosted by a counselor, OFTEN without parental presence. While this may not sound too bad, in some cases, children are required to sign legal paperwork that will be used later in the school's paper trail (We wish we were making this up).
At this meeting "issues" are discussed and ways to "resolve" the problem are suggested. How extensive this procedure is depends on the financial condition of the district. Poorer schools might just settle on one meeting, whereas more affluent schools can have extensive and complicated programs involving peers, teachers and counselors.
However, it is also at these meetings that the school's zero tolerance policies are stated and the meeting is documented and recorded. To emotionally charged teenagers, sitting across from each other, these warnings go in one ear and out the other. This is literally like telling someone something important when they are drunk and then claiming "Hey, I told him!" The school is now "covered" for the price of a "meeting."
The assumed "dual guilt," counselor "lead" session and your absence is why the school's documentation of any meeting or decision is detrimental to your cause. Rest assured that the documentation and "warnings" have been carefully crafted to ensure the school's legal protection. Counselor's are told what to include, what formula to follow and what paper to fill out afterwards.
Also, you must understand that you are dealing with professionals here. They deal with these kinds of problems on a regular basis. Marching in there when the situation blows up and blindly, howling for justice, railing against the system and expecting the bureaucracy to move how you want it to is literally the equivalent of thinking you are going to step into the ring and outfight a professional boxer. They've dealt with this kind of problem before and they know how to protect themselves. From the beginning they have maneuvered to effectively counter this "parental strategy."
They've learned how to do this because of an unintentional consequence of Zero Tolerance. Parents who are rabidly in support of Zero Tolerance to protect their innocent "Little Johnny," become just as rabid about making sure that Little Johnny is the "exception" when their child gets caught with drugs, weapons or fighting. Parents who are willing to sacrifice someone else's child to Zero Tolerance becomes raving fanatics to make sure their "sweet little angel" doesn't have to abide by the same rules.
So going in there alone and "ready to protect your child" is not enough.
Now let's look at what you can do.
The first thing, have a lawyer on retainer.
Many people when they hear us say this say "I can't afford an attorney." For the record, anybody can hire an attorney on retainer and it is, in fact, better to do it now. All it means is that, at your convenience, you find an attorney that you like and trust and give him a few hundred dollars. What this does is it gives you an attorney "on call." It's not that there is a problem, but if one develops then you don't have to go through the trials and tribulations of finding an attorney in the middle of a crisis. Also, a retainer without an immediate problem looming is cheaper than the "bail me out of this mess" fee lawyers charge to take a case.
There are several points as to why having a lawyer on retainer is both important and effective. Before we go into them however, you need to understand something. An attorney is like a bouncer in a bar. You hire him to * prevent * problems from happening in the first place. That is his main purpose, keeping everything running smoothly. It is only if the problem escalates that he "fights" for you. And like a bouncer, his job is to fight to protect your interests, not for his. Before you sign anything, you hand it over to your attorney to look over. An attorney is someone who is trained to look and see problems before they happen. He will see pitfalls and traps, long before you find yourself in the middle of crisis. This is why having an attorney on retainer, someone you can have "look over" situation s before you find yourself in trouble, is a good idea. If you see a problem developing, you just pick up the phone and ask for advice. Also, having an attorney on retainer is like walking to school knowing that you have a big brother that everyone is afraid of. and who will take it personally if you are picked on. You have more confidence walking to school because you know you are not alone.
That's for you and your protection, let's look at the points that help getting effective resolution with the school. To start with, the school district has lawyers looking out for their interests, so it only makes sense that, from the start, you do too. You step onto the playing field on equal footing. We cannot stress enough the importance of the message that this sends. A message that you don't need to loudly proclaim, anyone in the school district's hierarchy will immediately recognize the implications.
And that is: Someone who has the brains to have an attorney on retainer is probably going to have the brains to hand the problem over to the attorney before they make mistakes that would benefit the school.
The simple question of "Do I need to bring my attorney?" is a major warning to the school about what they can call down onto their heads. This especially if you follow that statement of "I'm not going to sign anything or consent to my child signing a legal document without representation."
In essence, the attorney isn't a threat, he is a promise. A promise of things to come if this problem isn't fixed now. In other words, the school is going to have to really work on protecting itself on this one, because if they don't, someone who knows how to nail them is waiting in the wings. In "protecting" itself, the school will often inadvertently solve the problem as well.
The second thing, no meetings occur without your attendance.
The second you hear that there is a meeting being set up, clear your schedule to be there. You don't necessarily have to participate, but your presence alone will change the equation. Sit back and watch how the school does things -- and watch for the school protecting itself and not your child. Also, before you go, make a phone call to your attorney and ask him what to watch out for. He might want you to fax him copies anything that they want you to sign or any notes resulting from the meeting.
NOTE: At this stage of the game, nothing is "declared." It is just everyone working together, trying to solve the problem. It is nice, polite and cordial. The "kid gloves" haven't come off yet. There is no need to threaten, bluster or become hostile, just quietly insist that you attend any meetings. Any mention of your attorney is calm and casual, along the lines of "I'd like a copy of this to fax to my attorney." Don't be surprised if you encounter "bureaucratic" resistance (a polite, "there's no need for that" or "these are school records"), be just as polite and firm, but insist that since it is your child, you have the right to his/her records.
The third thing: record any meetings with the school's representatives.
You don't need to have your attorney present with you at the initial school meeting. A recording and any documentation that is generated from the meeting will do just fine. Yes, take a tape recorder. It will also terrify those involved in the meeting because it is an accurate transcript of what they did -- and more importantly didn't do -- to find a working resolution to this problem. Such a recording, with the declaration at the start of the meeting, that it will be turned over to your attorney if this problem isn't resolved, can do wonders for making sure that the school does "everything possible" instead of "what is sufficient to cover their butts."
This documentation does several things. The most important thing it does is it tells people that you are calm and methodical about protecting your child. That kind of person is one who can create the most trouble for the school district and the parents of the bully. In other words, it is not someone you want to mess with. Second, it creates a record of what everyone did -- and didn't do. It records promises and plans, and if there is a breech of these, it holds the people involved accountable.
In the same vein, instruct your children never to sign anything until you have looked it over! If the school hold a "can't we all just get along" meeting without your knowledge or consent, it is here that they can -- and often do -- pull the "They-were - informed-about-our-Zero-Tolerance-policy -see - here's-the-signed-document" trick. Where you live depends if the courts have ruled on the legality of this "procedure" in the State Supreme Court. Until your SSC determines if such a signed document is not legally binding, it is very strong weapon in the school's arsenal to throw your child out out of school if a situation goes physical
Also, in some districts we have encountered incidents where a "signed confession" has been demanded by the school's administration before the parents were informed of any problem. These "confessions" were then handed over to the police. If your child is
In either case, expect a phone call and having to suddenly go down to the school on this one. Tell your child to sign nothing and to demand that you are called before further action is taken. Don't think that the school won't stoop to calling your child out of class and holding a "surprise" meeting to get you out of the loop. Know that failure to abide to this request to inform you in a timely manner by the school, can be a field day for your lawyer -- especially if you have informed them (and have it on tape) that you wish to be present during any meetings on this subject that involve your child.
The fourth thing, do not go into any meeting without a "game plan" on what you and your child are willing to do to resolve this situation.
This is where it is critical that you have looked into the problem and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your child is not involved in the escalation and development of this problem. By this we don't just mean that you have listened to your child's version of events, but talked to his/her friends other sources and anyone else who might have seen examples of this problem. If your child has any part in developing this problem then this will backfire on you.
Your child must know, that this isn't about him/her anymore. This isn't about his/her feelings, anger, pride or emotions anymore. This has become an "adult sized problem." And that means engaging in and lying about the situation is going to have serious repercussions. It ain't a childish game anymore. He/she will be held responsible for any breeches and infractions on his/her part regarding this "peace making contract."
On your part, what are you willing to do to help resolve this issue? There will be an impact on your life as well. The piper must be paid. To begin with, bureaucracies don't like being goaded. They will demand that you too participate in the resolution of this situation. Odds are that you will, for the following months, have to drive your child to and from school to prevent further conflicts. Or possibly arrange your child's presence at a location -- under adult supervision -- where there is little to no chance of him/her encountering the other.
A few game plan hints: Your child's nemesis lives that way, your child goes the other way. Your child agrees not to go to certain areas, the nemesis agrees not to come into others. Your child, if you cannot pick him/her up from school goes to a place of adult supervision and stays there until you can pick him/her up. Any breech of these by your child will be looked upon as willful initiation of further hostilities.
Change your child's class schedule. If there are classes they share, somebody is transferring out. Rearranging schedules, so the combatants are nowhere near each other and don't pass in the hallway is one of the best ways to prevent further conflict. Schools hate to do it, but if it is that or getting sued for not taking every possible measure to prevent trouble, they will do it.
The fifth and most important thing: Stick with the game plan.
The reason this plan works is that it takes it out of the isolated realm of bullying and turns the full attention of everybody onto the problem. Bullying is like every other socially unacceptable act like crime, abuse and violence. It relies on factors like surprise, isolation, victimhood and the aggressor's ability to choose when and where to strike when those who could stop him are absent or otherwise occupied. It is amazing how even the most outraged, emotional and self-righteous bully will find the self-control not to give into temptation when the eyes of the world are upon him.(2)
What this game plan does -- as inconvenient as it may be -- is that by bringing others into the mix, it indemnifies your child against legal proceedings; And like it or not, throwing your child out of school for fighting is a legal procedure. If you can document that your child was abiding by the standards that were agreed upon and that the other child actively pursued, engaged your child and violated the agreement, the onus of the fight is on the other child. Yours is protected and if the school tries to expel your child you have legal grounds to fight back.
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1) Although with the
media coverage and sensationalism of the media you might
think school shootings are a common occurrence. They're not.
The truth is,
not only is this a huge country, but despite the so-called
threat, millions of children manage to go through their
entire school years and NEVER be involved in a school
shooting. The simple truth is your child has a greater
chance of being hit by lightning, than getting shot at
However, policies are often made in the aftermath of horrendous events. Often these policies are, shall we say, somewhat, short-sighted and create more problems than they actually solve. Return to Text
Spree shooters are a problem, but they are an even bigger problem if you refuse to allow armed personnel on campuses.
2) Stanton Samenow in his book Inside the criminal mind makes a convincing argument against the idea of "criminals being mentally ill" by pointing out that if a criminal were truly "insane" then the presence of a police officer would not be a deterrent against his choosing to act. Pathology, would dictate that he must act, whether the officer was there or not. This largely undermines the claim of criminal insanity, where the person didn't know what he was doing. He knew enough not to do it when and where he would be stopped. You will find this idea applies to bullies -- although to a lesser degree -- as well. They claim to have no self-control when they think they can get away with it. However, they find all kinds of self-control when they know there will be immediate and unpleasant repercussions; enough self-control, oddly enough, not to act. (Return to text)
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