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Charney/My Turn: Unintended consequences

"The opposite of poverty is not wealth but justice.” — Bryan Stevenson

Kiera, 16, was an honor student in Bartow, Fla., until she was expelled. Kiera, curious to find out if it was true that an eight-ounce plastic bottle filled with toilet cleanser and aluminum foil would smoke, experimented. And as happened, the bottle inflated, blew its cap and smoked. It was a “science experiment gone wrong,” her principal said. No one was hurt and nothing was destroyed.

Except that Kiera was taken into custody by a school officer and charged with a double felony: possession of a weapon of destruction, and discharge of a weapon of destruction on school grounds. Charged not as the minor she is, but as the adult she is not. Currently, she is faced with a possible five years in prison, and — unable to return to her own school — she must finish her degree in a special expulsion program.

This nightmarish scenario seems scripted more as a “Les Mis” sequel than an American school happening. “Students have to learn that there are consequences to their actions,” a School Committee member announced. But what about justice? Don’t they have to learn about just consequences, one wonders?

Go back about 15 years. Corinne, 14, an eighth-grader in Greenfield, was also curious. Corinne, like Kiera, was an excellent student, with an impeccable record and a supportive family. Her curiosity led her to a can of hair spray and matches. She had heard that hair spray plus flame equals combustion. Suddenly, there was a beeline to the girls’ bathroom, and a standing-room-only crowd, which alerted her teachers. Fortunately, the staff intercepted the ad-hoc science lab before any harm was done. And yes, disciplinary action followed. But here Corinne was suspended for a day, a day that included discussion, reparation and reconciliation. Educators seemed to think that risk-taking was an unavoidable property of growing up and lessons were learned through reasoned rather than harsh consequences.

Young people may do very stupid and hurtful things along the way that beg for the compassionate and innovative intervention of adults. Kiera. Corinne. Similar actions, yet radically diverse outcomes — why? There are many answers. One is a racial narrative (one black, one white.) Research shows that disciplinary measures are far harsher when children of color are involved. There is also a time factor (post-9/11; post-Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook) and the new “zero-tolerance” policies, translated into absolute codes of conduct and laws. Intensified by ever more pressure to police our schools, and further blurring the lines between disciplinary action and court action. Thus we have ended up with a national trend that many youth advocates identify as the school-to-prison pipeline.

A few years ago, I witnessed this incident. A student (hungry as it turned out) took out a granola bar during algebra, which was against class rules. Her misbehavior was confronted with public contempt by the teacher; the student responded with face-saving insolence. A power struggle ensued, ugly words were exchanged, until she was forcefully removed from class and then expelled. Again, like Kiera and Corinne, not a “bad seed” and not an incident that couldn’t have been redirected with a lighter touch and a specific reading of the individual. For example, a whispered request, an invitation to take a few minutes in the hall or even a class discussion at the end of the period, not naming names or making negative assumptions, such as, “Any ideas about how we can follow the rules and still have a snack if essential?”

Rational alternatives would come so naturally from industrious students when invited. Our best strategies, in tense moments, call for our best skills and patience, rather than “zero-tolerance” absolutes.

There were 3 million expulsions last year. I truly fear for Kiera and the next Corinnes or Corys, who arrive with their toilet cleansers, hair spray cans or Internet transgressions. I fear for the stupid, thoughtless and cruel things that will certainly transpire as young people travel the rough ground of learning to be moral and considerate citizens. The chance to learn how to make better choices diminishes, rather than improves, with expulsion and incarceration. I also believe that reasoned and just consequences are needed, enacted by a community of caring adults are needed now more than ever. Reconciliation, not expulsion, and not prison, is the solution.


I strong recommend Bryan Stevenson’s “TED” talk on YouTube. Also listen to Khary Lazarre-White, director of The Brotherhood/SisterSol Organization, speaking on Kiera Wilson on MSNBC.

Ruth Charney is a Greenfield resident.

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