School changes 6-year-old's offense from 'sexual harassment' to 'misconduct'

The Colorado school removed 'sexual harassment' from the 6-year-old boy's record, resolving the issue for his mother, she said. But the incident invited more criticism of schools' zero-tolerance policies.

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Following a flurry of national media attention, the six-year-old Colorado boy who was suspended from first grade for kissing a classmate has had his school record adjusted. The infraction category will be changed from “sexual harassment” to “misconduct.”

While the label shift has resolved the issue for the boy’s mother, who told local media she felt the tag of sexual harassment was inappropriate for a six-year-old, the widely publicized incident spotlights a growing struggle in the nation’s schools over so-called zero-tolerance policies for everything from drugs to violence and sexual behavior.

“The original impetus for zero-tolerance policies was to combat drugs, and it took hold during the Clinton years,” says Ted Wachtel, a former school teacher and founder and president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Bethlehem, Pa.

“What is clear is they do not work,” he says, pointing to mounting research from such organizations as the American Psychological Association, which devoted a 2006 task force to the topic. 

“In fact,” he says, “what the studies show is that in many cases, zero-tolerance policies have seriously exacerbated already difficult situations,” most notably high dropout rates among minorities, such as African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.

Schools and legislators have been searching for more balance over the past five years, points out Mr. Wachtel, whose group has worked with some of the nation’s most challenging school districts. For an example, he points to success in cutting violence in half at a Philadelphia high school during a six-month period.

His goal, he says is to shift from a rigid approach to one that allows for communication and nuance.

Media attention has helped bring the issue to the front burner, points out Paul Hewitt, associate professor of educational practices at University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

“The zero-tolerance policies have come along with more emphasis on law and order in general within our society,” he points out. The media attention on such seemingly small instances as a child being suspended for making a play gun out of a pop tart, have been important, he says.

As coverage of negative fallout from zero-tolerance policies has mounted, school districts from Massachusetts to California have been wrestling with new approaches, he notes.

Colorado has been in the forefront of this effort, last year passing what was dubbed the Smart School Discipline Law. It requires districts to rewrite their policies to eliminate automatic expulsion for anything but carrying firearms onto campus. This followed media attention on a 10-year-old girl who was expelled after turning over a small knife to her teacher, one that had been put in her lunchbox by her mother to help cut up food.

Cañon City school officials are not returning calls from national media. However, Superintendent Dr. Robin Gooldy told the local Cañon City Daily Record that the kissing incidents, which happened twice, fit the district's sexual harassment policy. This reads, "Unwelcome touching, such as patting, pinching or repeated brushing against another's body."

The adjustment to the boy’s record occurred after several days of social and broadcast media coverage, which culminated in a meeting Wednesday between the principal of Lincoln School of Science and Technology and the boy’s family. 

Principal Tammy DeWolfe told the Daily Record that the school looks for information before taking action. "Then we continue to work with the families," she said. "Our goal is to ultimately get inappropriate behaviors to stop."

She also said the school would "never suspend a student for one minor little violation."

The school’s goal, says Ms. DeWolfe, "is to basically maintain a safe learning environment for all children in the school, and that's certainly what we're trying to do here.”

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